Remembering the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith

Published: Thursday, Dec. 23 2010 5:30 a.m. MST

During a year when Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned king of Italy, and Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean, there were no headlines to herald the birth of a humble boy in Sharon, Vt.

His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, barely mentioned her son's birth in her book, "The History of Joseph Smith."

"We had a son whom we called Joseph, after the name of his father; he was born December 23, 1805. I shall speak of him more particularly by and by," she wrote.

Joseph's lowly pre-Christmas arrival in a frame home on Dairy Hill was that of a common man.

But his life was entirely uncommon.

Although times were tough, Joseph was born into a family of faith, unity and industry that prepared him for his future calling as a prophet of God.

Gary Boatwright Jr. and Don L. Enders have both worked for the Church History Department as historic site researchers for many years. T. Michael Smith and Kirk B. Henrichsen have also researched Joseph's birthplace. They were not there for Joseph's birth, but they can paint a picture of the circumstances surrounding the important event.

The background

Following the marriage of Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith in 1796, Enders said a series of unfortunate events led the couple and their three children to Sharon, Vt.

"Life had begun full of promise for Joseph and Lucy. But within six years, shortly after the births of Alvin, Hyrum and Sophronia, they had the very unfortunate circumstance of an economic downturn," Enders said. "There was the misconduct of a business partner of Joseph Smith Sr. There were unwise decisions on their part, and just bad luck. They lost their farm and home. They were destitute. They had to make a living through hard work and labor."

Following the sale of their farm, the family moved from Tunbridge, Vt., to Royalton Township, Vt. The family remained there for a few months until they were offered a small home and adjoining land to rent in Sharon, which Lucy's father, Solomon Mack, had purchased in 1804.

The birth

As the frigid New England winter gripped the Vermont countryside in December 1805, a fire likely provided some warmth in the humble frame home where Joseph Smith and his family lived.

The home was not insulated, Enders said. The walls were likely no more than an inch or two thick, so even when the fireplace roared with flames, the room's temperature remained low. Lucy was likely confined to a bed in the one bedroom, Enders said.

"Winters in Vermont are bitterly cold with lots of snow," Boatwright said.

In those days, Enders said, midwives and other women assisted in the birthing process.

"They knew the process and were pretty darn good," he said.

It's possible that Lucy's mother, Lydia Gates Mack, was present because the Macks lived nearby.

Male doctors were viewed as specialists who supposedly handled difficult situations. Historians think Lucy encountered complications because a doctor was called in to help deliver Joseph.

As prophesied in scripture by Joseph of Egypt, the newborn was named after his father, "And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation" (2 Nephi 3:15).

A doctrinal dissertation by Larry C. Porter published by BYU contains an interesting footnote about the birth of Joseph, although the source is ambiguous. The title of the dissertation is "A Study of the Origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831."

The footnote reads, "I, John D. Springs, M.D., have told a family story concerning Dr. Joseph Denison of South Royalton, Vermont, who delivered Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints. The story was told my mother by her aunt, Mrs. Louise Elder, who had cleared out the house of Mr. Denison after the death of him and his family. The report was bound in his account books of delivering a son for old Joe Smith. Under a later date he had put a note on the same entry saying, 'If I had known how he was going to turn out I'd have smothered the little cuss.'"

Christmas

What was Joseph's first Christmas like two days later?

There were no trees or decorations, no Santa and no gifts, Enders said. Those traditions didn't come until later.

"The Smith family was descended from Puritan stock, and Puritans did not celebrate Christmas," Enders said. "Christmas celebrations at that time basically meant attending meetings where there was preaching, not play or activities. Ministers preached about the birth of Christ, his life and mission. Those were solemn days, maybe something of a Christmas feast, but not much beyond."

The monument

One hundred years from the day of the Prophet's birth, President Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the LDS Church and nephew of Joseph Smith, dedicated the monument that stands atop Dairy Hill today. The monument is made of granite carved from the Green Mountains of Vermont. The Solomon Mack farm was purchased by Junius F. Wells in 1905. Wells oversaw the construction of the 18-ton monument and a memorial cottage.

On the 200th anniversary of the Prophet's birth, then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed church members around the world from the hallowed site.

"Two hundred years ago, on this very day, in this very place, there was born a child who was prophetically named Joseph after the name of his father," he said. "He became the prophet, seer and revelator of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He gave his life in testimony of the truth. … We are here on this significant anniversary, in the very place of his birth, we pay tribute and honor. We give praise and reverence. We give thanks to the God of heaven for his appointed prophet in this the dispensation of the fullness of times."

e-mail: ttoone@desnews.com

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