The Great and Spacious Building

“[I]t appeared to reach to the very heavens.  It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed.” (Lucy Mack Smith 1853, 59, describing a dream of Joseph Smith Sr.)  1877 photograph of the Reynolds Arcade interior (built 1828), looking south toward the front entrance.  From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division; used with permission in Mormon Parallels, p. 1401.

“[I]t appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed.” (Lucy Mack Smith 1853, 59, describing a dream of Joseph Smith Sr.) 1877 photograph of the Reynolds Arcade interior (built 1828), looking south toward the front entrance. From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division; used with permission in Mormon Parallels, p. 1401.

Last week WWE offered a guest contribution from Rick Grunder—historian, antiquarian bookseller, and author of Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source. In this follow-up post, Rick shares one of the most important “Mormon parallels” he has discovered in his decades of research.

If you live long enough, you end up with a few good stories to tell.  In order to further both of those conditions, antiquarian booksellers love to get together (like fishermen boasting about the one that didn’t get away) to trade their latest adventures.  Gathering at a restaurant, we may raise a few eyebrows—of adjacent diners who overhear famous names and scary prices, or of weary wait-staff wondering if we plan to stay the night (“Would you like another pitcher of water, Sir, while we clear the tables?”).

Great pieces occasionally come to us by appointment, complete with carefully-prepared write-ups, pictures and provenance.  More often, however, the full import of what we find is not evident at first glance.  It is only after background research and some thought in the shower that an item gets fully appreciated, and appropriately priced.  Sometimes the discovery is even less obvious, yet more significant.  “I sold,” wrote veteran bookseller Harold Nestler,

to a dealer, and thorough researcher in central New York a small 36 page pamphlet titled, “Illustrated Guide to Reynolds Arcade . . .”  It was published in 1885.  When built this Arcade was the largest and most expensive building in the United States west of Albany, New York.  The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, has a vision of a great and spacious building by a river-side.  Several years later the purchaser sent to me a one and a half page article which he had written, in which it is suggested that Joseph Smith, author of the Book of Mormon, may have gotten his vision of a great and spacious building when he saw the Reynolds Arcade in Rochester, not far from his home in Palmyra.  It is amazing what influence a small and apparently minor item may have upon a person with a curious and investigative mind.[1]

—amazing particularly if such a tentative connection holds easily without forcing the data, until the components collaborate comfortably beyond normal expectation.  The little pamphlet was not expensive, but the path it opened became priceless in my estimation.  I think it led to something potentially significant for Mormon Studies.  I’m afraid my quick article (which Harold mentioned) grew to sixty-five pages eventually, but that’s alright, considering how much has been written by others to contextualize the dream of the iron rod in other settings.

If today’s prevailing mantra is “Keep it simple, stupid,” we nonetheless have to find where we are going, and assemble sufficient evidence along the way.  For years, therefore, I pursued everything surrounding the Reynolds Arcade—probably making some historians wonder about my sanity until everything came together.  Element by astonishing element, things kept fitting so naturally that it was impossible to let them go.  In the simplest nutshell I could devise afterward, I tried to condense the essence of what I had found:

The Book of Mormon’s opening book of 1 Nephi presents a dream/vision in which prophets describe a detailed scene involving a narrow path with an iron rod, leading to the tree of life laden with the most desirable fruit.  A river which is both good and bad flows alongside, on the other side of which is seen a large, high building filled with the proud people of the world.  The scene is fraught with physical and spiritual peril.  All of these elements are met efficiently and conspicuously in a scenario which Joseph Smith experienced in and around Rochester, New York, at the specific time when he dictated this text.[2]

Across my desk, over the decades, have passed many sobering relics:  Martin Harris’ 1830 Book of Mormon, for instance, or another used at Hawn’s Mill;  a seerstone of Joseph Smith’s, and one from the Whitmers;  an important bond signed by Joseph and his friends in front of a Missouri mob on their eventual way to the Liberty jail, and a more famous bail agreement signed later at Carthage, just before the end.  There has been much more, of course.  Yet nothing carried more impetus for what I regard as my life’s work (though I couldn’t have imagined it at the time) than a little Rochester brochure purchased so casually from a catalog nearly thirty years ago.

Ironically, that minor piece isn’t particularly important now.  It was merely an agent provocateur.  But how provocative the results!  I could only say it plainly in retrospect:  “The most interesting Mormon parallel situations from the nineteenth century will offer similarities which are at least as good as ancient ones.  And, they will be much more available and straightforward.  So it is with the narrative of Rochester, New York.”[3]  When Joseph Smith was dictating the dream of the iron rod in 1829, he was also looking at a substantial iron railing hundreds of feet long.  This is not some dodgy, speculative connection.  Rather, it is an inescapable conjunction of history, in my long-studied opinion.  That rod protected a narrow path from which one might fall easily to one’s death in the large, fast-flowing river below, on the other side of which rose—high into the air—a great and spacious building filled with the proudest, best-dressed people of Rochester, New York.  This was the Reynolds Arcade, which according to historian Paul E. Johnson, “dramatized” the segregation of social classes when it opened in 1828—one year before Joseph Smith and Martin Harris walked that same corner in search of a printer for the upcoming Book of Mormon then in preparation—at a moment in June 1829 that was close as I can calculate to the time when the dream of the iron rod was first spoken by Joseph Smith.[4]

Back around the table with bookselling friends, conversation drifts now to any topic available.  “What’s new in the Mormon trade?” asks one.  “Well,” I venture, “there’s this interesting new find from Rochester, which . . .” (I try to finish before the busboy returns).  Colleagues listen to my esoteric report, but the dessert on their plates may be simpler to process.  (“Mormonism . . . That was started in Palmyra, right?—by John Smith?”)  They assure me politely that whatever I’ve found, it will surely set the world on end.  I pick up my fork and muse wryly that the world of Mormon Studies is heavy at both ends, without a lot of room in between.

Different perspectives inevitably divide Mormon Studies, and many of the entries I have written on other topics are intended merely as alternative views.  In the case of the Reynolds Arcade, however, I see no way out.  The first reviewer of Mormon Parallels observed that “the image of the brand new Reynolds Arcade will convince even the most stout believers of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling that the image of that structure could not but have been present in his mind.”[5]  In order to encourage others to form their own opinions, I would like to offer the lengthy Reynolds Arcade article here as a free download, coupled with another Parallels entry that shows pictures of a most eligible candidate for Lehi’s dark and dreary wilderness.

Here then, for Worlds Without End, are the Reynolds Arcade and the Montezuma Marshes (Mormon Parallels entries 350 and 272, respectively) extracted into a single PDF file:



[1] Harold R. Nestler, More Adventures of an Antiquarian Bookman . . . (Waldwick, N.J.: Harold R. Nestler, 2004), 66.

[2] Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels:  A Bibliographic Source (Lafayette, N.Y.: Rick Grunder – Books, 2008; 2014), 1367 (entry 350, Reynolds Arcade).

[3] Ibid., 1395.

[4] Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 52.  “We cannot, however, view neighborhoods at only one point in time, for the integration of social classes and of economic and domestic activities was breaking down in the late 1820s. The change was dramatized in 1828 with the opening of Reynolds Arcade on Buffalo Street.  That building provided four stories of office space to businessmen and professionals, all of whom lived someplace else.” For chronology of the Smith and Harris visit there and Book of Mormon dictation that month, see Mormon Parallels, pp. 1405ff.

[5] Review by Joseph Johnstun for the Association for Mormon Letters, accessed May 24, 2015 at

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