Defending the Faith: The collective witness of Joseph Smith's family

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

The suffering that Joseph Smith endured (e.g., mob attacks, tarring and feathering, five months of miserable incarceration in Liberty Jail) and his apparently conscious decision to die as a martyr argue powerfully for the sincerity of his prophetic claims.

But what can we learn from the behavior of his parents, siblings and wife? They knew him best. Did they have confidence in him? They left behind many statements declaring that they did. But actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. Did their lives manifest the trust in him that their words profess?

According to Joseph Smith’s 1838 personal history, Joseph Sr. reacted with immediate trust to his son’s account of the Angel Moroni, saying that it was “of God” and advising Joseph “to do as commanded by the messenger” (JS-H 1:50).

With the exception of two siblings who died in infancy, this seems to have been the response of the entire Smith family. Joseph’s oldest brother, Alvin, died young in late November 1823, long before the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and less than two months after the first visit of Moroni. According to his mother, though, his last words included an earnest admonition to Joseph to be faithful in obtaining the plates of the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith Sr. (d. 1840) and Lucy Mack Smith, the parents of the Prophet, followed him faithfully, from New York to Ohio, on to Missouri, and, in the forced exodus of the Mormon refugees in the winter of 1838-1839, while Joseph and Hyrum were in prison, on to Illinois. So did their remaining children, Hyrum, Sophronia, Samuel Harrison, William, Katherine, Don Carlos and Lucy.

Joseph Sr., Hyrum and Samuel stood among the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, testifying that they had both “seen and hefted,” indeed “handled” with their hands, the plates from which the book was translated. Joseph Sr., Hyrum and William served successively as patriarchs to the church; William was a member of the Twelve; Joseph Sr. and Hyrum were “assistant presidents” to their son and brother.

Don Carlos (d. 1841) presided over the high priests at Kirtland and Nauvoo and edited the church newspaper, “Times and Seasons.” Samuel was one of the first Mormon missionaries and, eventually, a member of the first church high council. He died a month after Joseph and Hyrum, very possibly from injuries sustained while fleeing from a mob.

Mother Smith devoted several of her last years to compiling “Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet” (eventually published in 1853, and still in print).

For various and complex reasons, most of the surviving Smiths didn't go west with the pioneers. (The families of Hyrum and Samuel did.) However, Emma Smith continued to affirm her faith in her murdered husband’s prophetic claims and eventually, in 1860, encouraged her son Joseph III to accept the leadership of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The other family members who were left in Illinois (including Joseph’s three sisters, who had received their temple endowments soon after the martyrdom) also ultimately joined that movement.

Perhaps most significant of all the close family, though, is Hyrum, who, though acutely aware of the likely outcome and despite being urged to flee, chose to accompany Joseph to Carthage Jail, where both died in a hail of bullets.

Hyrum was no idol-worshiping younger brother. He was nearly six years Joseph’s senior and better educated. He endured those months in Liberty Jail with Joseph, saying of the experience afterward that “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to. ... I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”

“We all had the most implicit confidence in what (Joseph) said,” recalled his brother William late in his life. “He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful. No, we never doubted his word for one minute.”

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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