The First Latter-day Missionary

The First Latter-day Missionary

By Ryan Carr, Church Magazines

Samuel Smith, the first latter-day missionary, didn’t know it at the time, but his efforts ended up bringing into the Church two of its greatest leaders.

What if you had to go on a mission alone—no companion, no training at the Missionary Training Center, no missionary lessons to teach from, and only your testimony, the Spirit, and the Book of Mormon to help you? How would you do?

Samuel Smith—the first official missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—did just that. Samuel, the Prophet Joseph’s younger brother, was 22 at the time of his first mission. As he walked alone into towns near Palmyra, New York, he carried only a knapsack full of copies of the recently printed Book of Mormon.

As Samuel was growing up, the Smiths studied the Bible and had family prayers. During his teenage years, Samuel knew the Restoration was in progress. In the evenings he gathered with his family to hear Joseph talk about the plan of salvation and “the great and glorious things which God had manifested to him.”

When Samuel was 21, he went to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where his brother Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were translating the Book of Mormon. On 15 May 1829, just days before Samuel arrived, Joseph and Oliver had received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist and had baptized each other with that newly conferred authority.

In Harmony, Joseph showed Samuel part of the Book of Mormon that he had translated and “labored to persuade him concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which was now about to be revealed in its fulness.”

Joseph wrote that Samuel wasn’t “very easily persuaded of these things,” so Samuel “retired to the woods, in order that by secret and fervent prayer he might obtain of a merciful God, wisdom to enable him to judge for himself. The result was that he obtained revelation for himself.” 2      

On 25 May 1829 Samuel was baptized, the third person in this dispensation—following Joseph and Oliver—to receive that ordinance. Later that year Samuel was one of the Eight Witnesses privileged to examine the gold plates. The next spring, on 6 April 1830, he was one of the six original members when the Church was formally organized. Others were also working to share the gospel, but in June 1830, Joseph set Samuel apart to be the Church’s first officially called missionary.

Into the Mission Field

The first day of his mission, Samuel walked 25 miles (40 km). He visited four homes, but no one wanted to buy a copy of the Book of Mormon. Hungry, tired, and discouraged, he stopped that night at an inn. Samuel asked the innkeeper if he would like to buy a copy of the Book of Mormon.

“I do not know,” said the innkeeper. “How did you get hold of it?”

“It was translated by my brother, from some gold plates that he found buried in the earth,” Samuel explained.

“You liar! Get out of my house—you shan’t stay one minute with your books,” said the innkeeper. So the Church’s first missionary slept that night under an apple tree on the cold, damp ground.   

The next morning Samuel gave a copy of the Book of Mormon to a poor widow who fed him breakfast. Then he walked 8 miles (13 km) and shared the Book of Mormon with John Greene, a Methodist minister, who took it only to see if others he knew might be interested in buying a copy. Mr. Greene’s wife, Rhoda, was Brigham Young’s sister, but Brigham had not yet been introduced to the Church.

When Samuel returned to the Greenes’ home in two weeks, he learned that Mr. Greene hadn’t found anyone who was interested in the Book of Mormon. So Samuel agreed to return in a few months. When he did, Mr. Greene wasn’t home, but Mrs. Greene told Samuel that she had read the book “and was much pleased with it.” The Spirit prompted Samuel to leave the book with her. She was so grateful “she burst into tears.” Samuel then “explained to her the most profitable manner of reading the book … which was, to ask God, when she read it, for a testimony of the truth of what she had read, and she would receive the Spirit of God, which would enable her to discern the things of God.”    4

Later Mrs. Greene urged her husband to read the Book of Mormon too. He did, and they were soon baptized.

Converting a Future Prophet

In 1830 Samuel also sold a copy of the Book of Mormon to Brigham Young’s brother: Phinehas (or Phineas) Young, a Methodist preacher. When he first met Samuel, Phinehas was returning home on horseback from his preaching circuit. He had stopped at a farm for dinner. As he and the family were visiting, a young man, dressed in rough clothes, entered the room. Book in hand, the young man said to Phinehas, “There’s a book, sir, I wish you to read.”

“Pray, sir, what book have you?” Phinehas asked.

“The Book of Mormon, or, as it is called by some, the Golden Bible.”

“Ah, so then it purports to be a revelation?” Phinehas asked.

The young man opened the book to the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses and said, “Here is the testimony of the witnesses to the truth of the book.”

Phinehas read their testimonies. When Phinehas looked up from his reading, the young man said, “If you will read this book with a prayerful heart and ask God to give you a witness, you will know the truth of the work.”

Phinehas promised to read the book. Then he asked the young man’s name.

“My name is Samuel H. Smith.”

Phinehas had seen that name! “Then you are one of the witnesses.”

“Yes,” Samuel said. “I know the book is a revelation from God, translated by the power of the Holy Ghost, and that my brother, Joseph Smith, Jr., is a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”

After arriving home Phinehas told his wife, “I have got a book here called the Book of Mormon, and it is said to be a revelation, and I wish to read it and make myself acquainted with its errors, so I can expose them to the world.”

True to his promise, he read the Book of Mormon—twice in two weeks. Rather than finding any errors, he became convinced the book was true. On Sunday, when his congregation asked for his opinion of the book, “he defended it for ten minutes, when suddenly the Spirit of God came on him with such force that in a marvelous manner he spoke at great length on the importance of it. … He closed by telling the people that he believed the book.”   

That summer, the Young family, including Brigham, and their friends the Kimballs read the Book of Mormon and believed it.

Fill Your Knapsack

The first official latter-day missionary baptized no one and shared only a few copies of the Book of Mormon. Samuel didn’t know then that two of those copies would bring into the Church many faithful members, including Brigham Young, who presided over the Church from 1844 to 1877, and Heber C. Kimball, an Apostle from 1835 to 1868.

Like Samuel, you can fill your knapsack with copies of the Book of Mormon. Then share them, along with your testimony. As Samuel’s brief mission shows, you may not always know who will be touched by reading the Book of Mormon. But you can count on Moroni’s promise: if people pray sincerely about the Book of Mormon, God “will manifest the truth of it unto [them], by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moro. 10:4).

Conversion to the Book of Mormon

“Conversion to [the Book of Mormon] is conversion to Christ, because this book contains the words of Christ. …

“Additionally, conversion to this inspired book is conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. …

“Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. [The Book of Mormon] is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling.” —Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting,” Ensign, Sept. 2002, 14.