Zerah Pulsipher’s Conversion

In early January of 1832, Zerah Pulsipher stood in the barn-like Baptist building in Spafford, addressing the members who had gathered at his request to hear about his recent experiences. He told them of angels appearing to him to tell him that Mormonism’s Gold Bible was “the great revelation of the last days” and that he intended to join the newly-organized Church of Christ. Not long afterwards, he stood in the frigid waters of a New England river with Jared Carter—a Mormon missionary—who stated, “Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”,[i] following which Zerah was immersed in the icy stream and came up baptized as a Mormon. Many others from his family and congregation had or soon would join him in doing so. What led this devote Christian to be rebaptized? How did this affect his life immediately afterwards? What changes came to the community because of Jared Carter’s visit?

A Baptist Church similar to the one in Spafford stood in Rockingham, Vermont—Zerah’s birthplace. That community building was constructed on lands at least partly donated by Zerah’s grandfather David Pulsipher.[ii] David was one of the original nineteen members of that church and was a large man of great energy, deeply interested in public affairs, in the education of his children, and in the church. These interests were passed on to David’s son, John, who was another founding member of the Baptist church in Rockingham and was also a leading man in public affairs. [iii]

The Rockingham Chapel. Image courtesy of familysearch.org.
The Rockingham Chapel.
Image courtesy of familysearch.org.

Born into a religious family, Zerah was—at times—contemplative and given to serious reflection. When he was fourteen or fifteen years old, he had an experience that seems to have played an important part of his spiritual journey. According to his account: “One evening as I was sitting by the fire-side in my father’s kitchen alone, a sudden influence over-powered my mind to such an extent that I lost sight of everything on earth for some time, I never knew how long.” He seems to have considered this some sort of near-death experience, since his next comment in his autobiography was that, “it was necessary that more preparation should be made before I should be willing to pass the Vale of Death.” This event seems to have been that it caused him to think about religion and life after death more than before, because his next statements dwell on his religious thoughts.[iv]

It was an actual death in the family that caused more serious reflections on his faith. His first marriage ended not long after it began, as his wife died in December of 1812, just two years after he married her. Although he wasn’t able to reconcile himself to the idea that souls would be left in Hellfire to all Eternity, he still “had some anxiety about her state and condition” in the afterlife. A few weeks after her death he had a special manifestation to comfort him in his grief:

 She came to me in vision and appearing natural looked pleasant as she ever did and sat by my side and assisted me in singing a hymn—beginning thus: “That glorious day is drawing nigh when Zions Light Shall Shine.” This she did with seeming composure. This vision took away all the anxiety of my mind concerning her in as much as she seemed to enjoy herself well…. My mind became calm as respecting her condition in the spirit world.[v]

Not only did this vision calm his concerns about his wife, but he also noted that, “this hymn which she introduced and sang with me applied to the great work of the Last Dispensation of the Fullness of Times”—a reference to the future Mormon movement.

Cultural Preparation

In addition to his religious upbringing, Zerah was well-prepared by the culture he lived in to join the Mormon movement when missionaries did come to his community. Like many of the early Mormon converts, Zerah grew up during the time of the Second Great Awakening—a fervent effort to restore righteousness and religious zeal in America, characterized by circuit-riding preachers, fiery-tongued evangelists, new grass-roots religious movements, and fervent emotionalism. As this movement worked its course in the six decades leading up to the Civil War, sporadic spiritual revivals erupted throughout the United States, causing an increase in active Christian church membership. The “ecclesiastical storm center” of this movement was western New York—an area that was in an almost constant state of revivalism. Revivals were so habitual in this region that historians have labeled it the “Burned-over District.” The grand climax of this religious zeal occurred between 1825 and 1837—the time period that the Pulsiphers lived in the area.[vi]

Painting of the Second Great Awakening.
Painting of the Second Great Awakening.

The Pulsiphers were a product of this time in several of their beliefs. Among those was the conviction that the time was that Christ’s Second Coming was coming soon. For example, Zerah’s father said that the signs of Christ’s second coming were often seen and that He would come before many years should pass away. “And if he did not live to see it, likely his children would.”[vii] The American and French revolutions had spurred speculation about the forthcoming coming of Christ and Millenarians saw the two revolutions as signs of the coming Millennium. Others, such as William Miller, created chronologies of millennial events by matching historic occurrences with scriptural predictions.[viii] Strange signs in the sky were also taken as indicators that the Millennium was close.  When Zerah saw “the most extraordinary Northern Lights that I had ever saw” in the fall of 1814, he noted that “it was the cause of many speculative notions among the people” and that his father said that it was the signs of the last days and Christ’s coming. Zerah regarded his father’s remarks as “specimens of good sense.”[ix]

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis in Finland.

Another impulse that was common among the religious movements of the time was a desire for the restoration of the practices and teachings of the New Testament church. For example, Roger Williams—the founder of Providence, Rhode Island—stated that there was “no regularly-constituted Church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any Church ordinance; nor could there be, until new apostles were sent by the great Head of the Church, for whose coming he was seeking.”[x] Solomon Chamberlain—a Methodist who became an early convert to the Church of Christ—reported that an angel told him in vision that there were “no people on the earth that were right; but that the Lord would in his own due time raise up a church, different from all others, and he would give power and authority as in the days of Christ.”[xi] Those who looked forward to a restoration of that church were known as “seekers,” “restorationists,” or “primitivists.”[xii]

Although Zerah was involved in the local Baptist church and felt that “there were some things among the Sects that appeared reasonable,” he was indeed a seeker. For years, he had contemplated the principles of religion and commented many times that “if the pure church with its gifts and graces was…on the earth… I had not found it. But I should be happy enough to find it in my day.” He felt that existing churches lacked “the principles of the ancient gospel with all its gifts belonging to it” and—as mentioned above—doubted that God would condemn souls to Hell for all eternity. Further, the vision of his first wife fueled his belief that a glorious day was drawing nigh when a new religious movement that had those gifts and principles would soon be founded.

Zerah’s wife Mary also had her doubts about the religion she had embraced. When she joined the Methodist church she was initially not baptized—the preacher just never suggested it. After being a member for a year, she approached the preacher and asked if believed baptism was a duty to obey. When he responded it was not a saving ordinance, she countered that, “I see by reading the New Testament, I consider it a duty—a command” and that it must be done by immersion. The preacher did not agree that it was to be done by immersion, but agreed to baptize her to settle her conscious, and had her baptized by kneeling in water and then pouring a little water on her head from the bank. Mary was unsatisfied and felt it was mockery, but pushed her minister no further at that time.[xiii]

For the time being, however, the Pulsiphers remained actively involved in the local Protestant churches, much like Zerah’s father and grandfather before him. While living in Spafford, Zerah was one of four members of the board of trustees at the Free Will Baptist church at the time a new church building was constructed in 1828. This sturdy building—the only church building in town—was jokingly called “God’s Barn” when it was first constructed, and with its large and respectable membership it gave promise of a long and useful career. After a Mormon proselyting wave struck the region, however, the church’s nickname proved painfully prophetic.[xiv]

The Gold Bible

The answer to Mary and Zerah’s religious concerns (and the death knell to the Free Will Baptist church in Spafford) came in the form of a very strange book: “in the summer of 1830 I heard a Minister say in Public that a golden Bible on some ancient Peoples were found in Manches<ter> N.Y. the sentence thriled through my sistem like a shock of Electricity.” Zerah later recalled that: “At the same time [I] thought it might be something that would give light to my mind upon principles that I had been thinking of for years.” [xv] One of the Pulsipher’s neighbors—a man by the name of Silas Hillman—also recalled that:

In the year 1831, a man by the name of Chamberlain came there bringing the Book of Mormon. He gave history of its origin, how it was obtained, and its translation. A young man by the name of Joseph Smith was visited by an Angel of the Lord, who informed him that a record of an ancient people that once inherited this land was hid up unto the Lord in a certain hill in Palmyra, New York. He was informed that if he would obey the instructions of the Angel, that in the due time of the Lord, he should have power to obtain record and have power given him to translate them which was fulfilled. And the men spoken of had the said translation printed and bound and it was called the Book of Mormon.[xvi]

Dan Jones preaching with the Book of Mormon in Wales. Image from Preach My Gospel.
Dan Jones preaching with the Book of Mormon in Wales.
Image from Preach My Gospel.

The timing of the minister’s arrival is somewhat uncertain (hence the discrepancy of dates in the quotes above), though late 1830 seems most likely from the various accounts, but this book—which would have an immense impact on Zerah’s conversion to Mormonism—was a central part of the message of early Mormon missionaries. The Book of Mormon functioned most importantly as a sign that God had restoring the gifts and powers that the New Testament spoke of early Christian believers having—most notably through the seership of the young man mentioned by Chamberlain—Joseph Smith, Jr.

According to Joseph Smith’s own account, as a young boy he had “become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the welfare of [his] immortal Soul” and through searching the scriptures and becoming acquainted with the “diferant denominations” in the town he lived in, came to the conclusion that “mankind did not come unto the lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” He was also “convicted of [his] sins.” Smith reported that during his distress over his religious questions that, “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness.” He spoke of a vision where the Lord appeared to him, forgave his sins, and confirmed that, “none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not commandments.”[xvii]

Following this formative experience, Joseph reported several years of silence from God. Then, he recalled, “When I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was night.” In this vision, the angel reveled that, “In the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni [Moroni—the name of the angel] & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by th[e] commandments of God… and that I should go and get them.”[xviii]

The Hill Cumorah by C.C.A. Christensen.
The Hill Cumorah by C.C.A. Christensen.

After four years of preparation, Joseph Smith was able to take the plates and with material support from friends and the help of a few scribes dictated a manuscript that would be published as The Book of Mormon in 1830. The book was written in biblical style as a record of a family of Israelites that the Lord led away from Jerusalem to the Americas about 600 years before Christ. The primary history spanned 1000 years, covering the ministries of many prophets who believed in and taught their people about Christ, Bible-like narratives of both righteous and wicked individuals, a personal visit from the resurrected Jesus Christ, and the wars and difficulties that the colony faced as it grew and split into two opposing factions. Ultimately, in the record, the righteous believers were exterminated by war and apostasy, but not before a prophet-historian named Mormon and his son Moroni abridged the history of his people and recorded it on golden plates that were preserved for the future. The book dwelt much on theological themes such as redemption through Christ, the scattering and gathering of Israel, and that the power and gifts of God are always available.

In addition to translating the Book of Mormon, Smith reported that he and his primary scribe—Oliver Cowdery—had received special authority to baptize, to confer the Holy Ghost, and to ordain priests and teachers from a series of angelic visitors. Further, they recorded a revelation in March 1829 wherein the Lord promised His people to “work a reformation among them, and… establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.”[xix] Shortly afterwards, Smith recorded another revelation wherein the Lord reiterated this promise, stating, “If this this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them” (D&C 10:53). Thus, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon became wedded to the formation of a new religion.

During the process of dictating the Book of Mormon, Smith began to gather a following, particularly among the families of those who were assisting in the translation process and a few other individuals believed that he was a prophet doing the work of God. These converts began to spread the news of Joseph Smith’s work, not even waiting for the Book of Mormon to be fully printed and published. Christian Whitmer, “Copied from the manuscripts the teachings and the doctrines of Christ, being the things which we were commanded to preach.” Thomas Marsh journeyed from Lyons, New York, to inquire about the “Golden Book” and left with the first sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon, fresh off the press.[xx]

E. B. Grandin Shop where the Book of Mormon was published.
E. B. Grandin Shop where the Book of Mormon was published.

One of the more enthusiastic and eccentric investigators at this time was a man by the name of Solomon Chamberlin—presumably the same Chamberlain who first taught the people of Spafford about the Book of Mormon. Chamberlin was a visionary man who had joined the Methodists when he was 19 years old after having a “vision of the night” in which he saw the damned in hell “blowing up the flames and preparing red hot iron to lay their faces on to all eternity”, but later decided that “they (the Methodists) were wrong in many things.” After an 1816 vision of a meeting house, he attended a Reformed Methodist quarterly meeting and “saw the same house of worship.” Here, he experienced further visions of both Satan and Jesus, achieved sanctification and “went home rejoicing.” After living with these Reformed Methodists for a short while in a common stock system, he states that, “We found we were mistaken in many things” and he, “Felt very anxious to know whether there were any people on the earth whose principles were right in all things; for I was tired of all orders unless they had the true principles of God.”[xxi] He experienced a visitation from a deceased member of the Methodist society and was shown a vision wherein, he records,

The state of the society was now opened to my view, and I had a spirit of discernment, and could discern the sandy foundation that many of them were building on. I now fell on my knees and gave thanks to God for his condescention to unworthy me, and while lifting up my soul to God it appeared to me that I saw my Saviour stand before me with the bible in his hand, and said to me this is the book–live in the spirit that this was wrote and you shall shine in the enternal world on high.[xxi]

For the time being, Chamberlain wandered through various religions and regions, ending up in Wayne County in the fall of 1829, where he described himself as “living about 20 miles east of where the gold record was found, on the Erie Canal.” He heard about the Smiths and the “gold bible” while on a journey through Palmyra and visited Joseph Smith, Sr.’s household to learn more. After visiting for two days with Hyrum Smith—Joseph Smith, Jr.’s older brother—he learned about the “gold record” and obtained sixty four pages of the Book of Mormon at the printing office. Excited, Chamberlain rushed off to Canada to preach about this book. After travelling six or seven hundred miles and telling people about the “gold bible so called” and telling them to “prepare for the great work of God” he returned home.[xxi]

Around the time that Solomon Chamberlain returned home, the publication of the Book of Mormon was complete and on 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr. gathered 40 or 50 of his followers, six of whom acted as the charter members of a new church they formally incorporated and called the Church of Christ (the name was later changed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838). Sometime afterwards, Chamberlain “took eight or ten” copies of the Book of Mormon, and “started off to sell and to preach; for you could not sell one without a great deal of preaching.” It was towards the end of this journey that Chamberlain’s path crossed with the Pulsiphers: “I returned home and on the way preached it to the Free Will Baptist Church, and they received it.”[xxii]

An artist's interpretation of the gold plates Joseph Smith, Jr. had.
An artist’s interpretation of the gold plates Joseph Smith, Jr. had.

Since Zerah “thought it might be something that would give light to [his] mind upon principles that [he] had been thinking of for years” he had a deep interest in getting his hands on the Book of Mormon to find out more. As he would later recall: “In the fall of 1831 there was a Book of Mormon brought into town[.] I succeeded in getting it[.] I directly read it through twice[,] gave it a thorough investigation and believed it was true.”[xxiii] His son, John, would later recall that Zerah would get together “with the neighbors Elijah Cheney, [Shadrach] Roundy and others would sit and read and talk day and night ’till they read it through and through. They believed it was brought forth by the power of God, to prepare the way for the second coming of the Son of Man—it was just what they were looking for.”[xxiv] Zerah’s wife added that they, “Believed it, but did not know anything more about it. We were very anxious to know more about it.”[xxv] They were able to find out more from a missionary by the name of Jared Carter.

The Proselyting Wave Strikes

About the time that Zerah first had the chance to read the Book of Mormon, Jared Carter was preparing to leave form Kirtland, Ohio—the headquarters of the Church of Christ at the time. In Jared Carter’s journal, we read that: “After I had been to Kirkland[,] when I received the authority of an apostle [elder] commenced a mission to the east on 22nd day of Sept 1831 with Brother Eben Page.”[xxvi] Prior to this time, Jared had come in contact with the Book of Mormon, and “became immediately convi[n]ced that it was a revelation of God.” He,

concluded that I should go to See them [the Mormons] as soon as expedient…. Accordingly I went from Shenango a town in Broom County state of N.Y., where we lived to the town of Coalsville… & having an interview with them I felt it my duty to separate from Babylon and baptized[.] accordingly I was baptized by hyrum Smith about the 20th of February [1831].”[xxvii]

Jared was ordained a priest in June of that year and elder (as mentioned above) in September, prior to leaving on his mission. During this mission, he traveled with his companion through Ohio and New York, and then separated to take care of requests for missionaries to visit a few areas. He ended up working in Benson, Vermont, where he had previously lived. Then, Carter writes, “After it appeared that my work was done in this plase [Benson, Vermont] for the preasant I went on to the west to Spafford[,] a town in york state[,] onondaga County[,] where I commenced laboring in the ministry & the Lord began immediately to bless my labors.”[xxviii]

Jared and Simeon Carter in Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story.
Jared and Simeon Carter in Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story.

When Carter arrived in Spafford, New York in January 1832, there were several individuals in the community who were eager to hear what he had to say. They had “a great many questions to ask” about the Book of Mormon and his beliefs. As soon as Carter arrived, Zerah and two Methodist ministers came to him and, after proper introductions were given, began to question Jared about his beliefs. Zerah watched to see if he could find fault with the young missionary and asked about “the principles of the ancient gospel with all its gifts belonging to it.” When Jared answered that he believed in them, Zerah pressed further and asked whether he had ever laid hands on the sick and they had recovered. To this, the missionary responded that he had done so in many instances.[xxix]

Impressed, the Pulsiphers attended a service the following evening where Jared Carter preached to a crowded congregation. Mary recalled that Jared told them that baptism by immersion was the only right way and that it was for the remission of sins, which sounded right to her. He also told them how the Book of Mormon was found and translated by Joseph Smith. The missionary held up a copy of the Book of Mormon and declared it to be a revelation from God. Even though Zerah had been watching to find fault with this Mormon elder, he stated that “I could not gain-say anything he had said.”

When Carter sat down and gave liberty for remarks, Zerah perceived that those present seemed to be in a daze. He arose and stated that:

We had been hearing strange things and if true[,] they were of the utmost importance to us. If not true[,] it was one of the greatest impositions and as the preacher had said that he had got his knowledge from heaven and was nothing but a man and I the same, that I had just as good a right to obtain that blessing as he, therefore I was determined to have that knowledge for myself.

Zerah considered it his privilege from that time to make it a matter of fervent prayer. He did so for about a week and received a witness that the Book of Mormon and “Mormonism” were of God. According to his account:

As I was thrashing in my barn with the doors shut, all at once there seemed to be a ray of light from heaven which caused me to stop work for a short time, but soon began it again. Then in a few minutes another light came over my head which caused me to look up. I thought I saw the Angels with the Book of Mormon in their hands in the attitude of showing it to me and saying “this is the great revelation of the last days in which all things spoken of by the prophets must be fulfilled.” The vision was so open and plain that I began to rejoice exceedingly so that I walked the length of my barn crying “Glory Hal-la-lu-ya to the God and the Lamb forever.”

Artist's depiction of Zerah's vision.
Artist’s depiction of Zerah’s vision.
Image from The Pulsipher Family Book.

This vision had a powerful impact on Zerah’s life, as well as other members of the Free Will Baptist Church he attended. He recalled:

For some time it seemed a little difficult to keep my mind in a proper state of reasonable order, I was so filled with the joys of heaven. But when my mind became calm I called the church together, and informed them of what I had seen. I told them of my determination to join the Church of Latter Day Saints, which I did and a large body of my church went with me.[xxx]

On 11 January of 1832, Zerah and his wife, Mary, were baptized along with all their children who were old enough to do so (Almira, Sarah, and Mariah). Jared Carter recorded that “there was some displays of the healing power of god in this plase while I was here,”[xxxi] one of which occurred during the Pulsiphers’ baptisms. Mary recalled that:

I wanted to be [baptized] at the first opportunity, but Satan thought he would hinder it. The night before baptism, I was taken very lame with rheumatism or something. I was so sick I could not get around much. As they were fixing to go, Brother Carter said to me, “Sister Pulsipher, if you will do your duty, you shall be healed.” I took a cane and hobbled to the water and went in. It was a very cold day, but I came out well, left my cane, and went away rejoicing.

There were other meetings with the missionary and other requirements for full admission to the Pulsiphers’ new faith. The gift of the Holy Ghost is described in both the New Testament and in the Book of Mormon, and in many instances is depicted as having been given by the laying on of hands. In the early Church, priesthood holders laid their hands on the heads of new converts and generally made a brief statement along the lines of “in the name of Jesus Christ, receive ye the Holy Ghost.” This ordinance was also considered a confirmation of Church membership and, as such became known as confirmation.[xxxii] Mary later wrote that at the time of her baptism:

I was very ignorant. I had not heard anything about being confirmed, or receiving the Holy Ghost. The next evening [we] went to [a] meeting and the six that were baptized were there. When he [Jared Carter] put his hands upon my head, he said, “Sister Pulsipher, by the authority of the Holy Priesthood and in the name of Jesus, I lay my hands on your head to bless you and to confirm you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. I say unto you—receive the Holy Ghost.” He promised great blessings if I would be faithful. The spirit of the Lord was there. We sang, prayed, and praised God together.[xxxiii]

Soon, other members of the community were baptized. Shadrach Roundy traveled to Kirtland, Ohio and was baptized by William McLellin on 30 January.[xxxiv] Reverend John Gould—who served as a minister at the Free Will Baptist Church in Spafford—was baptized in December of that year by Reynolds Cahoon.[xxxv] Uriah Roundy, Daniel Pulsipher (Zerah’s nephew), Elias Humphrey, Mayhew Hillman, James Oliver, Elijah Cheeney, the Ensigns, and their respective families in addition to a Mrs. Maxson, Mariah Ripley, and Mariah Brown would also join the new faith.[xxxvi] In total, a number of around 20 neighbors were baptized before Jared Carter left, and Zerah was ordained to be the presiding elder of this new branch of the Church of Christ.[xxxvii]

Over the next two years, the local branch continued to grow, and, in order to follow what they felt was the will of God, migrated to the headquarters of the Church of Christ in the Ohio. The results for the Free Will Baptist Church in Spafford were catastrophic. As one historian observed:

It was not possible for this church to recover from this exodus of membership into a movement like this, so the church went quickly into decline. After the church building had stood open for a long time to the weather and been a place where cattle in the fields had found shelter, it was finally sold in the early forties to Captain Asahel Roundy, who moved it near the Homer road, south of the ” Corners,” and converted it into… [a] dwelling house.[xxxviii]

While causing “God’s Barn” to fall into disuse (at least by humans), and while largely destroying the Free Will Baptist Church, these conversions marked a new phase of life and new opportunities for the newly-Baptized Mormon. Some would leave their new faith within the next few years while others would stay with the movement until the ends of their lives, but life would never be the same for these residents of Spafford.


[i] See Gregory A. Prince. Power from on High (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 84.

[ii] Zerah Pulsipher, “History of Zerah Pulsipher,” in Pulsipher Family Book, ed. Thomas S. Terry, Terry Lund, N. H. Lund, and I. L. Holt (1953), 10-24.

[iii] Juanita Brooks. “Juanita Brooks Record Book.” MS 9291. Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT.

[iv] Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 11.

[v] Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 11.

[vi] Milton V. Backman, Jr. “Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision.” BYU Studies 9, no. 3 (1969), 1.

[vii] “Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 11..

[viii] See Rough Stone Rolling, 165-166.

[ix] Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 12.

[x] See William Cullen Bryant, ed., Picturesque America; or, the Land We Live In, 2 vols. (1872–74), 1:502.

[xi] Dean C. Jesse, ed., “The John Taylor Nauvoo Journal, January 1845-September 1845,” BYU Studies 23 (summer 1983): 45.

[xii] For more information on the Great Awakening and restoration movements, see James B. Allen and Leonard, Glen M. The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 13-19.

[xiii] Mary Brown Pulsipher, “Autobiography of Mary Brown Pulsipher,” in Pulsipher Family Book, ed. Thomas S. Terry, Terry Lund, N. H. Lund, and I. L. Holt (1953), 26-32, p.28.

[xiv] Collins, George Knapp, Spafford Onondaga County, New York (Onondaga, NY: Dehler Press, 1917), 47-49.

[xv] Autobiography of Zerah Pulsipher, 12; Autobiographical Sketch of Zera Pulsipher, 4.

[xvi] Cited in Rhean Lenora M. Beck, Life story of Sarah (King) Hillman and Her Husband, Mayhew Hillman, and Their Children. (independently published, 1968).

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Book of Commandments (Independence, Mo.: 1833), 4:5.

[xx] Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 56.

[xxi] Larry C. Porter, “Solomon Chamberlin’s Missiong Pamphlet: Dreams, Visions, and Angelic Ministrants,” BYU Studies 37, no. 2 (1997-98): 113-140; Brent Ashworth, “The John Taylor Nauvoo Journal, January 1845-September 1845,” BYU Studies 23, no. 3 (1983).

[xxii] Brent Ashworth, “The John Taylor Nauvoo Journal, January 1845-September 1845,” BYU Studies 23, no. 3 (1983), 40-41.

[xxiii] Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 12.

[xxiv] John Pulsipher,“John Pulsipher’s History”, in Pulsipher Family Book, ed. Thomas S. Terry, Terry Lund, N. H. Lund, and I. L. Holt (1953), 47-63, p. 47

[xxv] Mary Brown Pulispher, “Autobiography,” 29.

[xxvi] Carter, Jared. “Jared Carter Journal, 1831 January-1833 January 20.” MS1441, Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 35.

[xxvii] Carter, “Jared Carter Journal,” 2-3.

[xxviii] Carter, “Jared Carter Journal,” 45-46.

[xxix] The bulk of the account is found in the “History of Zerah Pulsipher,” 12. Also, “Autobiography of Mary Brown Pulsipher”. Another bit of information is found in a sermon by Brigham Young on 6 April 1860, recorded in JD 8:38. He stated: “Brother Pulsipher said that he watched to see if he could find fault with the Elder who preached the Gospel to him. I did not take that course, but I watched to see whether good common sense was manifest; and if they had that, I wanted them to present it in accordance with the Scriptures.”

[xxx] Zerah Pulsipher, “History,” 13.

[xxxi] Carter, “Jared Carter Journal,” 45.

[xxxii] Prince, Power, 94.

[xxxiii] Mary Brown Pulispher, “Autobiography,” 29.

[xxxiv] Jan Shipps, and John W. Welch, eds. The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 70. Another version of Shadrach’s conversion story says that he sought out Joseph Smith while he was at Fayette, New York and baptized by him following their first interview in January 1831. See History of the Church / Smith, Joseph, et al. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edited by B. H. Roberts. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1902–1912 [vols. 1–]), 1932 [vol. 7]), 2:298.

[xxxv] http://josephsmithpapers.org/person/john-gould; see also LeRoy W. Kingman (ed.), History of Candor, NY, From Our County and Its People, A Memorial History of Tioga County, New York, (W. A. Fergusson & Co., N. Y., 1897), 444.

[xxxvi] Collins, George Knapp, Spafford Onondaga County, New York (Onondaga, NY: Dehler Press, 1917), 48.

[xxxvii] John Pulsipher, “John Pulsipher’s History,” 47.

[xxxviii] Collins, Spafford, 48.

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Wilford Woodruff Conversion

During December of 1833, Zerah Pulsipher was at work, threshing grain in his barn when he felt a strong prompting that he needed to travel north because the Lord had something for him to do there.[1] One account from Zerah’s son Charles Pulsipher outlines the events that occurred in his home in relation to this prompting:

Father was ordained an Elder & set apart to… travel & preach as the spirit might direct & while working in the field the spirit moved upon him to start out & go North & preach the gospel, he stoped & thought on it & finely conclouded to work on untill night & then he would more think more about it but the spirit soon told him to go north on a mission so he quit work & went home & told Mother to get his clothes ready for he was going on a mission in the morning. where are you going. I don’t know, only I am to go north. How long will you be gone? I don’t know that.

He got Bro. Cheney who had been ordained a decon to go with him. They travled two days, about 80 miles from home & just before sundown father looks ahead of them & said, do you see that little house in the clearing? Yes, well, that is where we are to stop.[2]

Zerah and Mary Brown Pulsipher. Image courtesy of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Zerah and Mary Brown Pulsipher.
Image courtesy of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Two brothers lived at this house in Richland, but they weren’t home at the time. The wife of one of the brother was, however, and she let the elders in. They informed her that they were Mormon elders who felt they had been called of God to go north and preach about the restored gospel of Christ and that they had “traveled sixty miles on foot… in deep snow, and the first place they felt impressed to call upon was the house.”[3] They then asked “can you keep t[w]o travleing preachers of the great Later Day Gospel? Well yes she said, I guess so. We never turn away preachers. So they went in & she prepared supper for them.”[4] When they explained what they were preaching, she told them that her husband and brother-in-law would be interested in hearing what they had to say. When her husband came home, Zerah asked him, “Do you think we cant get a meeting tonight?” The husband’s response was, “I guess so. I will go out & see about it.” Accordingly, “He gave out the word & lit up the school house.”[5] The elders set up a meeting in the schoolhouse on the farm, and circulated notices throughout the village that they were to preach that evening.[6]

Little did the missionaries know then that one of those brothers would become, in the words of historian Thomas G. Alexander, “arguably the third most important figure in all of LDS church history after Joseph Smith, who began Mormonism, and Brigham Young, who led the Saints to Utah and supervised the early colonization of the intermountain west.”[7] For the time being, however, the two brothers—Wilford and Azmon Woodruff—were young seekers living in rural New York State.

The reason Azmon’s wife knew that the two men would be interested in what Zerah and Elijah had to say was that it was a lifelong quest of theirs to find the restored primitive church with apostles and prophets and had often discussed it at their home.

Young Wilford Woodruff.
Young Wilford Woodruff.

Wilford had grown up in Connecticut under a strict Presbyterian upbringing. Through studying the New Testament and the tutelage of a visionary man named Robert Mason, Wilford came to believe that “it was necessary to have prophets, apostles, dreams, visions and revelations in the church of Christ, the same as they had who lived in ancient days” and that “the Lord would raise up a people and a church, in the last days, with prophets, apostles and all the gifts, powers and blessings, which it ever contained in any age of the world.”[8]

Wilford thought much upon this subject, especially while he was a teenager and in his early twenties. When he was 23, he resolved to seek out the truth. He “attended the meetings of almost every demonization there was,” but had no desire to join any existing church, feeling that they were incomplete and that the Lord would one day bring His church back upon the earth. Yet, he wasn’t afraid to express his views to other religious people when given the opportunity. On one occasion he attended great meeting with ministers from all sorts of denominations present. He arose and stepped into the aisle and asked, “My friends, will you tell me why you don’t contend for the faith once delivered to the Saints? Will you tell me why you don’t contend for that Gospel that Jesus Christ taught, and that His Apostles taught?” Then he proceeded to name off the gifts he felt were necessary to the Church of Christ.

In response, the leader of the convention responded that,

My dear young man, you would be a very smart man, and a very useful man in the earth, if you did not believe all those foolish things. These things were given to the children of men in the dark ages of the world, and they were given for the very purpose of enlightening the children of men in that age, that they might believe in Jesus Christ. Today we live in the blaze of the glorious gospel light, and we do not need those things.

To this, the young Wilford simply stated, “Then give me the dark ages of the world; give me those ages when men received these principles.”[9]

Wilford still felt this way when he came home from drawing logs from the shores of Lake Ontario on the 29th of December 1833. He recorded that,

Upon my arrival home my sister-in-law informed me of the meeting. I immediately turned out my horses and started for the schoolhouse without waiting for supper. On my way I prayed most sincerely that the Lord would give me His spirit, and that if these men were the servants of God I might know it, and that my heart might be prepared to receive the divine message they had to deliver.

When I reached the place of meeting, I found the house already packed. My brother Azmon was there before I arrived. He was equally eager to hear what these men had to say. I crowded my way through the assembly and seated myself upon one of the writing desks where I could see and hear everything that took place.

Elder Pulsipher opened with prayer. He knelt down and asked the Lord in the name of Jesus Christ for what he wanted. His manner of prayer and the influence which went with it impressed me greatly. The spirit of the Lord rested upon me and bore witness that he was a servant of God. After singing, he preached to the people for an hour and a half. The spirit of God rested mightily upon him and he bore a strong testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon and of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I believed all that he said. The spirit bore witness of its truth. Elder Cheney then arose and added his testimony to the truth of the words of Elder Pulsipher.[10]

A depiction of the meeting where Zerah Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney preached.
A depiction of the meeting where Zerah Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney preached.

Wilford later stated that he “truly felt that it was the first gospel sermon that I had ever herd . I thought it was what I had long been looking for. I could not feel it my duty to leeve the house without bearing witness to the truth before the people.”[11] He got his chance to do so very quickly:

Liberty was then given by the elders to any one in the congregation to arise and speak for or against what they had heard as they might choose. Almost instantly I found myself upon my feet. The spirit of the Lord urged me to bear testimony to the truth of the message delivered by these elders. I exhorted my neighbors and friends not to oppose these men; for they were the true servants of God. They had preached to us that night the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. When I sat down, my brother Azmon arose and bore a similar testimony. He was followed by several others.[12]

The Woodruff brothers invited Zerah and Elijah to come to their home that evening and visited with them. Wilford borrowed the Book of Mormon and read it all that night. While reading, the Spirit bore witness to him that this volume was a true record.[13] Wilford later wrote, “Brother Pulsipher Continued labouring with us for several days and on the 31th of Dec I with my Brother Azmon Woodruff with two young females… went forward in baptism.”[14] Zerah performed the ordinance, even though conditions were not ideal for a baptism at the time—there was about three feet of snow on the ground, the day was very cold, and the water was mixed with ice and snow. Despite all this, Wilford later recalled that he did not feel the cold.[15]

A depiction of Wilford Woodruff's baptism in the video "The Great Apostasy."
A depiction of Wilford Woodruff’s baptism in the video “The Great Apostasy.”

The Mormon missionaries continued to labor in the area and baptized several other people in the following days and weeks. On January 2, Zerah established a branch of the Church of Christ in Richland that contained twelve members. Wilford was ordained a teacher while Azmon and Noah Hatton were ordained elders in this branch.[16] After this, Charles recalled, that, “Then they felt their mission was filled & they returned home.”[17]

Wilford Woodruff would later serve as a member of the second quorum of the seventies and as an apostle, serve several successful missions bringing hundreds of people into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and later served as president of the Church. While serving in this last position, Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto (published in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 1), which declared that the Church was “not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice.” While this statement would not be completely true until a few years later, this statement marked the beginnings of an era of transition that would reshape Mormonism. As Thomas G. Alexander stated while arguing that Woodruff was, perhaps, the third most important figure in Mormon history,

A man for his season, Woodruff shepherded Mormonism out of a morass of persecution and isolation. He marked the path which led the Latter-day Saints to come to terms with the separation of the temporal and spiritual and to acceptance and respectability; and he reclaimed and deepend the reservoir of spiritual water that nourished the Saints through trying times.[18]

Wilford Woodruff
Wilford Woodruff

[1] Wilford Woodruff, “The Birthday Reception,” Deseret Evening News, 1897, March 1, p. 1.

[2] Charles Pulsipher Autobiography and Journal. Copy in possession of author.

[3] Woodruff. “Birthday Reception,” 1.

[4] Charles Pulsipher, Autobiography and Journal.

[5] Charles Pulsipher, Autobiography and Journal.

[6] Woodruff. “Birthday Reception,” 1.

[7] Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth, the Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991], 331.

[8] Wilford Woodruff, Leaves From My Journal, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882), 1-2.

[9] Wilford Woodruff, and A. Winter (ed.), “Discourse,” Deseret Weekly, 1889, April 6, pp. 449-450.

[10] In Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, Fourth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: History of His Life and Labors as Recorded in His Daily Journal (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1909), 33

[11] Wilford Woodruff Journal introduction. Quoted in Wilford Woodruff, Waiting for the World’s End, ed. by Susan Staker. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), 2

[12] Cowley, p. 33.

[13] Cowley, p. 34.

[14] Woodruff, Journal Intro in 1993, 1-2.

[15] Cowley, p. 35.

[16] Wilford Woodruff journal intro. For other accounts of Wilford’s conversion, see Woodruff, W. (1897, March 1). The Birthday Reception. Deseret Evening News, p. 1; Jensen, A. (1886). Wilford Woodruff. The Historic Record vol. 5. Salt Lake City: Andrew Jensen, p. 93

[17] Charles Pulsipher.

[18] Alexander, Things, 331.