…and don’t worry, it doesn’t mention any salamanders.
While digging through the Beinecke Library at Yale last August, I started glancing through some random papers collections of individuals who lived in upstate New York around the same time the Smith family resided in Palmyra. Among the many collections I looked through were the letters of Owen S. Ward, a common farmer in Wayne County during the first half of the nineteenth century. After a couple hours I was starting to consider giving it a break and going back to what I had came to Beinecke to research, when I paused while reading the opening line of a letter from Clarissa Ward to Amasa and Mary Angel: “With pleasure I embrace this oportunity of writing you again by Joseph Smith.”
Then, further along in the correspondence is another letter addressed to Amasa and Mary Angel, this time from their father Owen Ward. He also implies that someone named “Joseph Smith” was offering them a chance to write the letter, meaning that he was willing to deliver it: “I have just returned from helping survey Esqr Velies farm as a chain bearer and am verry tiard but as we have an opportunity of sending a letter out by Joseph Smith I will try to write a little to night but you must excuse my bad writing and bad composition…” While we cannot be certain that this is our Joseph Smith–there was apparently at least one other individual by that name in the area at the time, though this “imposter” Joseph Smith was much older–it is a good possibility that this is a mention of the young prophet during the few years between the first visit with angel Moroni and the reception of the plates. This was a period when Joseph was moving from job to job trying to earn money, most notably it was around this time that he worked for Josiah Stohl and, as a result, met Emma. The letter is written from a town called Pleasant Valley, which I have not been able to locate, but if it was in Wayne County then it couldn’t have been far from Palmyra. These letters speak of this Joseph Smith as if they were familiar with him, yet I have not been able to dig up anything on the Ward family.
Why does this matter, you are probably asking? Well, because being mentioned as the letter-runner is not the only time the letters speaks Joseph Smith. These letters are full of scriptural allusions, demonstrating the religious revivals that had spread across upstate New York like wildfires in 1824. Clarissa’s letter mentions that she has been attending sermons at a Churh and that though they have heard of “revivles [sic] of religion at a distance…alas their does not appear to be any” in their particular village that year. Owen’s letter, after going into several temporal affairs, also speaks of religion and offers a very enticing (at least for us) anecdote:
I think I get along with my work as well as if I had George we live well and work hard and are quite contented but are not suitably thankfull as we aught to be for the blessing we receive as there is now revival of religion we are verry sluggish but we hope and trust that you injoy the same temporal blessings that we do and have grateful harts for it and I hope that you feel the ten thousand obligations you are under to God for the showers of Divine Grace that is falling around you there is a large shower falling in sipea [sp.?][.] Joseph Smith has mad[e] a public ackno[wle]dgement of his faults and asked forgiveness from God and man—
Again, could this be our Joseph Smith mentioned here, confessing his sins in front of some sort of religious gathering?
Such an action seems to fit in well with the young Joseph Smith. The religious impulses of the day, especially when connected with religious revivals, were designed to drive men to repentance and confession in preparation for salvation. Most of Joseph’s early visionary experiences came as a result of begging forgiveness and then being assured that his sins were forgiven. We know of a brief affiliation with other denominations during this period, as well as his later admission of youthful “follies” after the First Vision. One of the most predominant features of Joseph Smith’s character, at least to me, is his incessant need of spiritual assurance, and this “public ackno[wle]dgement of his faults” in hopes for forgiveness seems like something he would have done.
However, as much as I would like this to be a bonefied document about the Mormon Prophet, it just can’t be determined for sure.
Any thoughts on this document? (I am also secretly hoping that miraculously someone has more information on the Owen S. Ward family.)
 Several individuals knowledgeable with the New York era are currently looking into the logistics of this letter.
 Unfortunately, none of the other letters in the collection make any mention of Joseph Smith or offer any more clues.
 A link that Justin provides in comment #4 shows that while this letter is heading for Wayne County, the city of Pleasant is found in eastern New York.
 The numerous revivals in 1824 have led some to speculate that it was during that year, and not 1820, that Joseph Smith encountered the religious “excitement” that he wrote about in 1839. Such a topic is tangential to this post, however.
 Joseph Smith’s earliest accounts of the First Vision and the visit of Moroni both mention that he was praying for forgiveness of sins and that the first words from the heavenly visitors were that his sins were forgiven.
 Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 37; Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge, 12.