Zerah Pulsipher and the Angel

The other day, I came across an interesting talk from Glen L. Rudd about Moroni and his postmortal adventures. While interesting, however, it is unfortunately inaccurate on a few points. In particular, listing Zerah Pulsipher as someone who saw the Angel Moroni is inaccurate to the statements that Pulsipher recorded about his conversion.

Was the angel that Zerah Pulsipher saw Moroni

The relevant section of Glen Rudd’s discussion are as follows:

Most people never think much about him; but Moroni is still active and busy and doing all those necessary things to help bring about the full restoration of the gospel. …

Moroni had the great privilege, as he walked across this American Continent, of finding a place and designating the place where the St. George temple was to be built. He also designated where the Manti Temple was to be. And it’s been written that he designated Kirtland and Nauvoo and probably others. Moroni appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith 22 different times during the life of the Prophet Joseph that we know of.

Now, I want to tell you the names of some of the people that saw Moroni. …

The ninth man to see Moroni was a man named Zera Pulsipher. He was a minister of another church. He had a vision in his barn. While he was out in the barn one day, a light descended upon him in the middle of this barn, and he looked up and saw Moroni. And Moroni blessed his life and showed him the plates. He became a Seventy in the Church. He became a high priest and became a patriarch. He’s the man who converted and baptized Wilford Woodruff into the Church in 1833.[1]

It’s an interesting story (and some other parts probably bear some discussion, as indicated by a post by Ardis Parshall at her blog Keepatitchinin and another about the Angel Moroni over at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk), but what about Zerah Pulsipher?

The story that Rudd references comes from Zerah Pulsipher’s autobiographical sketches. Zerah made three attempts at writing about his life later on (the latter two of which form the basis of the well-known, but haphazardly created, typescript). In his story, Zerah talks about Jared Carter coming and preaching about the Book of Mormon and testifying that he had learned that it was true through personal revelation. Zerah and his family were already acquainted and interested in the Book of Mormon, but felt like they needed more confirmation. As is written in the one of the Zerah Pulsipher autobiography drafts:

as the Preacher had s[ai]d 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 Blesing as he[.] therefore I was determined to have that knowledge for my self which I Considered it My Privilege[.] from that time I made it a matter of fervent Prayer

I think about the sevent[h] day as I was thrashing in my barn with doors shut[,] all at once there seemd to be a ray of Light from heaven which causd me to stop work for a short time but soon began it again[.] but in a few minints another Light Came above my head which Causd me to Look up[.]

I thought I saw the angels with <the> book of Mormon in their hands in the attitude of sho[w]ing it to me and saying this is the great Revelation of the Last days in which all thing spoken of by the Prophets must be fulfild[.] The Vision was so open and plain that I began to rejoice Exceedingly so that I walkd the the length of my barn Crying glory hallalujah to god and the Lamb forever for some time[2]

Being visited by angels in vision testifying of the Book of Mormon is a powerful experience, which is something I don’t intend to downplay. But it doesn’t align with Rudd’s claim that Zerah “looked up and saw Moroni. And Moroni blessed his life and showed him the plates.” The account indicates that there were multiple angels, none of which have names given. (Also, he technically doesn’t state that they showed him the golden plates, just that they had “<the> book of Mormon in their hands”, which could be the printed edition rather than the plates.)

Might other accounts that Zerah left behind lend more support to the idea that he was specifically visited by Moroni? I’ve found three other accounts of what Zerah said happened. One is from a record of a Zerah Pulsipher sermon where: “Elder Zera Pulsipher … bore a testimony of having seen a vision, when an angel appeared to him, having a Book of Mormon in his hand.”[3] This one is a second-hand record, but it does limit it down to one unnamed angel. The earliest attempt at a Zerah Pulsipher autobiography, however, also includes a similar account to the one cited above, and when it comes to the vision, that account records that:

Another bright<er> light presented from above with such masterly rays of Glory filld me to the running over it came with such magestty and power from above that I lookd up to see from whence it came and beheld as I thought the Angels of god with the Book of Mormon in their hands informing me that was the great work of god that was to Commence in the Last days to fulfil all the all the Prophecies that had been spoken on on that subject.[4]

This first-hand account that is most likely the closest to the event itself (though probably still written a couple decades later) repeats the same message of multiple angels visiting him with the Book of Mormon in their hands.

Similarly, the other extant draft of a Zerah Pulsipher autobiography states that a group of unknown angels appeared in a vision to him. He wrote that:

another Light Came from above greatly Exceeding the first I Lookd up to see what it was it seemd that I saw angels one above another with the Book of Mormon in their hands saying this is a Revelation from god I was then so fild with Joy that I walkd the Barn flore criing hallaluah to god and the Lamb for ever & ever I then knew the work was of god for mys[elf.][5]

This final account is, if anything, even more explicit than the others in outlining that it was multiple, not a single, angel that visited Zerah, “one above another with the Book of Mormon in their hands.” Given that he was seeking for a witness about the book that he had in his possession (the printed version of the Book of Mormon) and that it seems like multiple angels have copies of the book in his vision, it also seems more likely to me that they were displaying the printed version of the Book of Mormon testifying about it rather than the gold plates. Thus, to me, it is a stretch to claim that Zerah was visited by Moroni and also a stretch to claim that Zerah saw the gold plates.

The source for Glen Rudd’s discussion is H. Donl Peterson, who wrote a book about Moroni. Peterson’s handling of the Pulsipher story is interesting. He titles the section about Zerah as “Zerah Pulsipher Saw the Plates and Angels,” and shares the story from the typescript, basically the same as the ones shared above. Taken alone, this aligns with the analysis above. Oddly, though, the story is shared in a chapter entitled “Moroni’s Appearances to Others” and concludes with a list of “Those who saw Moroni in a dream our in person,” and includes Zerah on that list.[9] No explanation is given for the leap in logic from seeing angels to seeing Moroni, but it seems that Rudd took Peterson at his word.

In Glen Rudd’s and H. Donl Peterson’s defense, though, it is a common element in storytelling to attach good stories about obscure people to someone more familiar. Folklorist Eric Eliason, for example, Eliason notes that J. Golden Kimball “acts as a magnet, pulling in free-floating stories having to do with slightly subversive but basically benign humorous behavior,” including both “specifically Mormon storytelling” and stories that are “nearly identical–other than the details of the main character and setting–to those told about colorful politicians and preachers elsewhere.”[6] For example, he shared the following story:

J. Golden Kimball was walking by his neighbor’s house, and his neighbor, who was watering his garden, turned his hose on him, drenching him, and said, “You’re a Mormon, right? Don’t you Mormons believe in baptism by immersion?” And then J. Golden Kimball, while jumping the fence and running at the man said, “Yes, and we also believe in the laying on of hands.”[7]

It’s a humorous, witty story, but the original version is not a J. Golden story – it’s a Willard Bean story (of Fighting Parson fame).[8] Because J. Golden Kimball is associated with this type of unorthodox wit and Willard Bean is not as well-known, Kimball folklore acted as a magnet, drawing the story into its domain.

What seems to have happened in the storytelling here is similar. To me, it’s easy to see the appeal of attaching a story about unidentified angels with the Book of Mormon with the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates. It’s understandable. Moroni is very well known and acted here as a magnet for the story. But it’s also just not accurate from a historical perspective to say that Zera Pulsipher saw the Angel Moroni.



[1] Glen L. Rudd, “The Angel Moroni”, Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, March 11, 2003, https://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/transcripts/devotionals/2003_03_11_rudd.htm

[2] Church History Library in Salt Lake City, MS_753_f0001_item_1-Record_book_circa_1858-1878, Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #2.

[3] “Minutes of the General Conference”, 6 October 1852, afternoon session; Millennial Star, 31 July 1852, vol. 14, p. 335. Zerah Pulsipher Sermons collection.

[4]Zerah Pulsipher autobiographical sketch,” undated. MS 753.3. Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[5] Church History Library in Salt Lake City, MS_753_f0001_item_1-Record_book_circa_1858-1878, Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #3.

[6] Eric A. Eliason, The J. Golden Kimball Stories (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 9-10.

[7] Eric A. Eliason, The J. Golden Kimball Stories (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 61.

[8] See, for example Marlin K. Jensen, “The Power of a Good Life,” April 1994 Conference Report.

[9] H. Donl Peterson, Moroni – Ancient Prophet Modern Messenger (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 161-172.

6 comments for “Zerah Pulsipher and the Angel

  1. Great post, Chad – I had never heard any of this. The story itself as Pulsipher recorded it is fascinating enough, but I like the point you made about how stories work. Especially before today’s ease of information access, it would have been easy to take a sensational story at face value. Do you know Rudd’s source?

  2. That’s a good question, Jonathan. I assumed he just read the autobiography typescript I mentioned, but in looking closer, there is a note with the talk that: “Most of the material used in preparing this talk has come from a book by H. Donl Peterson, Moroni – Ancient Prophet Modern Messenger. Some material is from the talks and writings of Elder Stirling W. Sill”. I’m not familiar with those, so will be going down that rabbit hole.

  3. Being a great-great-great-grandson of Zera, I find this interesting, but I have never heard of Zera seeing Moroni through family sources. Sounds like a faith-promoting rumor.

  4. Jonathan, I chased down Rudd’s source, and that does seem to be where the idea originated. I updated the post accordingly.

  5. Hi Tom, commenting as a fellow great-great-great-grandson of Zera. From the histories I have had access to, I don’t recall Zera ever naming the angel(s) he witnessed. That would be a fun detail had it occurred, but no evidence of it that I am aware of.

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