Visionary/Prophetic Children: A Research Query

By October 16, 2013

As my contribution to this month’s theme of childhood, children, and youth, I want to throw around a couple of loosely-formed thoughts on how Mormonism fits into the history of childhood spirituality.

First, Mormons sometimes claim that the reason God appeared and spoke to the boy Joseph Smith that spring day in 1820 was specifically because JS was just a boy. As in the days of Samuel, God needed a pure vessel, one simultaneously untainted by worldly knowledge and skepticism and eager to learn and obey.

Of course, Joseph Smith isn’t the only boy/young man to experience a vision and receive a prophetic calling, and Mormons aren’t the only ones to connect the dots between the receipt of those visions and childhood innocence/willingness. American Christians have long used both the Old and New Testaments to bolster the claims of boy (and less commonly, girl) prophets and preachers. One researcher has found nearly 500 examples of child preachers from the 18th century until the present, and the phenomenon is particularly common in charismatic Christian churches, as the fascinating and somewhat tragic story of Marjoe Gortner illustrates. While historians have done a wonderful job of contextualizing Joseph Smith within the larger American prophetic tradition, they/we have mostly ignored where and how he fits into the history of childhood preachers/prophets. It seems like a potentially fruitful framework for understanding JS and his prophetic calling in new light.

Second, and somewhat related, I’m curious about the ways in which Mormons have historically understood childhood spirituality. I hear from time to time passing references to children (sometimes, very, very young children) having special spiritual insight because of their comparative closeness “to the veil.” The allusion to the Mormon doctrine of a pre-existence necessarily sets Mormons apart from their Christian counterparts, and I wonder how this, along with uniquely Mormon scripture more generally (I’m thinking of several scriptural passages here, including Mosiah 3:19, the oft-recited story of the stripling warriors, and the younger Nephi being privileged by God to rule over his older brothers) informs Mormon attitudes toward childhood and children. I’m not unaware of the very gendered nature of these stories as well, and wonder about their implications for Mormon understandings of boy- and girlhood.

What does everyone think? Any insights on either of these points? What other aspects of early Mormon history, theology, and scripture might be understood in new ways with greater attention to childhood?


Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Christian History Cultural History Gender Historiography Intellectual History


  1. This is a really fascinating series of questions Chris. The issue has been on my mind lately because of my work on a biography of Joseph F. Smith. We often forget, for example, that JFS was a child raised in a 19th century New Religious Movement. The literature on this is helpful in understanding his childhood. Joseph Smith as child preacher is something I had never thought of before. I think it offers an excellent avenue for research.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 16, 2013 @ 9:04 am

  2. Chris, this is a great post. One of my favourite blessing stories from Winter Quarters, it’s a letter from Sarah G. Richards to Zina D. H. Young, quoted in 4 Zinas. I don’t think I ever have seen the original, not sure if Stapley has:

    “So I went in and sat down. There were about a dozen or 15 [children] sitting there, and two or three grown persons. Joseph Young, Senr. Was one ? and Ellen Rockwood and her mother. I had heard of meetings all the time here and there, but had not yet been to any. But this little assembly seemed strange to me, so quietly and orderly ? no books &c ? Soon however I saw one of the little boys (there were none over 14 years old as far as I could judge ?) rose from his seat and went to another who sat in his place; put his hands on his head and began to say something to him in the usual childish way and Language in English ? then he turned off and spoke in tongues a few minutes then went to his seat. Then the only interpreter present Ellen Rockwood gave the little speech in English. Then another arose and performed in the same manner, and the interpretation was given by Ellen. The speaking went on from one to another until Ellen was quite tired not being strong in health at this time. One of the little boys went over and put his hands on the head of Brother Joseph Young, Senr and he was so much moved wit the action even before the interpretation was given that tears coursed each other down his cheeks bedewing his venerable beard ? Then came my turn. The little boy began, ‘I do not know who you are or your name,’ then he as with the others began in tongues then placed his hands on the little boy in my lap who kept quiet a few minutes, but not liking the hands and strange voice so near began to cry. But the words said to him was also Prophetic. The language those children spoke was sublime and beautifully strong in the utterance. Sister Ellen Rockwood being considered the most correct and truthful interpreter became quite tired so as to give up; then after some singing I think, the meeting was closed ? I ought to have said that as the children continued one after another to speak, the Spirit so truly descended upon all that I cannot describe the sensation. When I reflected on the strange to me, outpouring of the Spirit of the Living God, at this time, I could not but think of that passage in Exodus ‘Horns came out of His Hands and there was the hiding of His powers’. These children were like all others until they placed their Hands on the head of someone of the living spirits in bodies like their own. This to me was the power in the Priesthood.”

    Lots of stuff to mine out of that quote alone. There is a lot of discussion in the Juvenile Instructor that is counsel to children re: healing and seeking blessings from their parents. This is one of the few stories I remember about a child administering a blessing, but I would not be surprised at all if there is more. Perhaps Jonathan (as he is wont to do) will recall some others that I have forgotten.

    Comment by kris — October 16, 2013 @ 9:07 am

  3. This is fascinating, Chris. Is there anything from JS’s Methodist background that would help us understand him as a child preacher/prophet?

    Comment by David G. — October 16, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  4. That’s amazing, kris.

    Comment by David G. — October 16, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  5. Thanks, folks.

    Taysom, I actually thought of JFS as I was writing this. I’m anxious to see how your treat his childhood–let’s chat more about that sometime.

    Wow, Kris. What a fantastic story. So much to consider there. It also reminds me of the story (I know it from the Truman Madsen lectures on JS–can anyone help with the source and verify its legitimacy?) of a 2 month old baby rising and joining in the hosanna shout at the Kirtland Temple dedication.

    Good question, David. There was a great dissertation written by John Patrick Ellis at Purdue a couple of years ago that examined Methodism in the early American republic as a youth movement. From the abstract:

    Because the Methodists entrusted their young men and women with key leadership roles, American Methodism became a youth-driven organization that, unlike modern youth movements, did not isolate young people from adults in an age-specific subculture. As a result, the church offered youths a powerful forum to question the authority of their elders, challenge established hierarchies based on race and gender, and advocate an egalitarian ideology that dovetailed with the democratic principles originating from the American Revolution.

    You’ll note the parallels with JS’s own life, along with several other early Mormon converts. I’m particularly struck by the similarities between JS’s earliest visions and the period of training and maturity, including informal preaching to family, friends, and neighbors and a sometimes intense but unguided study of scripture, he underwent before assuming his ministerial responsibilities—that’s basically the same pattern other teenage converts who hoped to join the Methodist ministry followed.

    Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  6. Chris, I have never heard of that story re: Kirtland Temple. It reminds me of the birth of Joseph Temple Bennett, who was born during the dedication of the SLC Temple (in the temple! He was delivered by Julina Lambson Smith and blessed by JFS eight days later.) Such stories could point to the ways that babies and their births fit into the spiritual landscape of the 19th century Mormonism.

    Comment by kris — October 16, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  7. Fascinating again, Kris. I found this account of the Kirtland Temple incident online, citing the journal of Benjamin Brown:

    the order of the house of the lord was there was no small children admitted one woman however not knowing the order brought her child about 2 months old she stood out of the door for a long time manifested an anxious desire to enter at length one of the elders said brethren we do not exercise faith my faith is this child will not cry a word in the house to day on this the woman & child entered and the child did not cry a word from 8 till 4 in the after noon but when the saints all shouted hosana the child WAS NURSING but LET GO & shouted also when the saints paused it paused when they shouted it shouted for three times when they shouted amen it shouted also for three times then it RESUMED ITS NURSING without any alarm.

    Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  8. That children has special gifts was an important part of European folk culture. Children were often seers, perhaps because of their virginity. Such gift could be lost of puberty. So for various seeric activities children were often important.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 16, 2013 @ 11:46 am

  9. Great questions, Chris. I wonder how much of it plays into Mormon pedagogy, i.e. “Joseph Smith had faith,” Joseph Smith found answers,” etc.

    I think another key reference is the descending of angels during the Book of Mormon’s story of Jesus’ visit to the Americas. I remember special emphasis on the subject while in Mormon children’s classes.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 16, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

  10. Great write-up and comments. Thanks all around. Steve, between Sally Chase, and JS, it would seem that child-seers had a sort of cachet in the neighborhood.

    Kris, that is still one of my favorites. So lovely. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ever find it in the Zina papers. There are a couple examples of children blessing, one in particular that was very important was published in the Juvenile Instructor at the end of hte century and sparked a debate the influenced the healing liturgy in interesting ways, I think.

    Mary Lightener was a prominent translator of glossolalia in <1833 Missouri as a child. Children exercising such gifts are not particularly common in the documents I am familiar with. Perhaps that is because like women, record keepers often overlooked the activities of people outside of their immediate social group.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 16, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  11. This conversation reminds me of David Blackbourn’s Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Bismarckian Germany (1995), which I first encountered in a seminar on microhistory. Three eight-year-old girls and their proclaimed visions of the Virgin Mary set in motion a series of effects that Blackbourn connects to larger historical developments. The local case of Marpingen in the 1870s illuminated grander historical dynamics of German, European, and possibly world history. I briefly refer to this work, because I wonder if considering and treating Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in the same microhistorical approach could also be as illuminating especially regarding these young seers and prophets.

    Comment by Farina — October 16, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  12. Thanks for the additional comments, everyone.

    Steve (and Farina), thanks for bringing in the European context. It there a good book or two you could recommend that discusses the importance of children’s special gifts to Europe’s folk culture, Steve?

    Your comment is exactly what I was hinting at, Farina, and I think/hope that JS’s first vision could very well work for that microhistorical approach.

    Joey, good call on the 3 Nephi reference. What are some other scriptural references people have seen/heard used?

    Stapley, thanks for reminding me of Sally Chase. It seems like some analysis of childhood seers would be important here, too.

    Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2013 @ 6:45 pm

  13. Christopher, the various books that on folk religion that I reviewed on the blog a few years back mention the folk belief that young people could see. I’m not aware of any full-length books on the subject.

    Young people also often played important roles in witchcraft trials. Think Salem. I remember reading somewhere that that was part of a larger trend. The children knew who the witches were because they were in touch with the world of spirits.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 16, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  14. John Stafford, who had known Lucy in New York, told RLDS interviewers that ?[the] old woman Had a great deal [of] faith [that] their Child – was going to do something great? (John Stafford, interviewed by William H. Kelley and Edmund L. Kelley, Rochester, New York, 6 March 1881, in William Kelley, Notebook no. 5, William Kelley Papers, RLDS Church Library Archives, Independence, Missouri, p. 16, in EMD, 2:87, [bracket-edited according to Kelley?s published version: ?The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon,? Saints? Herald (Plano, Illinois), 1 June 1881, p. 167, col. 1]. The edited version changes from the singular to the plural: ?The old woman had a great deal of faith that their children were going to do something great.?).

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 17, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  15. The European tradition of seeking out pure youths for scrying is also documented throughout Besterman?s study of Crystal-Gazing

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 17, 2013 @ 9:55 am

  16. Vogt and Hyman, in Water Witching, U.S.A., write that most dowsers discover the gift in their youth–although they do not use it regularly until they reach adulthood because farmers and others who need wells trust adult dowsers more than children(159-161).

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 17, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  17. Chris – you should contact Spencer Green at Penn State Harrisburg. He is a folklorist who, among other things, has researched the history and function of the “wise child” motif within Mormon folk and institutional narratives.

    Comment by Brant — October 18, 2013 @ 2:22 am

  18. Wonderful–thanks for the tip, Brant!

    Comment by Christopher — October 18, 2013 @ 8:12 am


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