Joseph Smith Jr. was born on a farm in rural Vermont in 1805, the fifth of eleven siblings. He received a limited education of reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. His family was reluctant to affiliate themselves with any of the established churches, but his mother Lucy attended some services of the Methodists and then settled on the Presbyterian church. She encouraged young Joseph's study of the Bible at home.
When he was around age 12, Joseph Smith Jr.’s family moved to a log cabin in Palmyra, New York, seeking better fortunes. At this time, the entire region of upstate New York was undergoing an enthusiastic religious revival. Traveling evangelist ministers from the various major Christian denominations would set up temporary camps from which they would preach to gathered crowds of locals, competing to win the most converts.
Deeply concerned about his own standing before God, young Joseph attended several of these gatherings, but became confused by how the same Bible passages could be understood so differently. He feared being wrong about matters that would have eternal consequences for his soul, but did not know how to determine who was right.
At age 14, while Joseph was feeling this distress and confusion over which church was the right one to join, he came across a passage in the The New Testament's Epistle of James which read: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." And so, with simple and unwavering faith, Joseph determined that he would settle the matter by following this advice.
So on a beautiful spring morning in 1820, Joseph went off into the woods alone, knelt down and began to pray aloud to God. But just as he began, he was seized and entirely overwhelmed by the power of Satan, and rendered unable to speak. Thinking himself doomed to destruction, Joseph mustered all his strength to call out to God to rescue him.
Suddenly a pillar of light shone down and Satan and his power were banished. Joseph saw two distinct beings standing in the air in front of him in brightness and glory. "Joseph," said one of the beings. He then pointed to the other being, saying, "This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" After so many long centuries of darkness, this visitation from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ signaled the return of direct revelation between God and man.
As soon as Joseph was able to speak, he asked, "Which of all the churches are right? Which one should I join?" And Jesus replied, "You should not join any of them, for they are all wrong. Their creeds are an abomination, their teachers are corrupt, and none of them have divine approval. The true Church of Christ is not currently to be found on earth."
This glorious manifestation in which Joseph Smith Jr. spoke to face-to-face with the Father and the Son was the greatest event to occur in the history of the world since the resurrection and ascension of Christ. As he arrived back home, Joseph's mother noticed he looked worn out, and asked him what was wrong. "All is well," he assured his mother, and then added: "I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true."
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