It was decreed in the counsels of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he, Joseph Smith, should be the man, in the last dispensation of this world, to bring forth the word of God to the people, and receive the fulness of the keys and power of the Priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family and that blood as it has circulated from its fountain to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation. 1
Joseph Fielding Smith
One reason for the presentation of [brief sketches of Joseph Smith’s ancestors] is to show that before Joseph Smith received his heavenly manifestations, his ancestors in this country were all accepted in the best society. They were respected, honored, trust was placed in them. They held the respect of the best citizens in their communities. There was no evil spoken of them. Papers gave them honorable mention and lauded them when they died for their integrity, loyalty to country and faithfulness and trust worthiness in their several communities. When, however, Joseph Smith began to tell the world of his visions and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, calumny set in. He and his family on both his father’s and his mother’s side, suddenly became a degraded, lazy, shiftless set of people. They immediately lost the respect of their former friends. Falsehoods followed each other in rapid order. Lying tongues sought every means in their power to stop the work the Lord had started with Joseph Smith as his instrument. All of this the Angel Moroni promised him would follow. 2
Asael fought in the American Revolutionary Army. An outspoken critic of sectarian religions of his day, he declined to join any church, but hopefully awaited a restoration of the gospel in its pristine purity.
Asael Smith was not the only American revolutionist who felt a conviction that the true church would one day be restored to the earth. In 1820, the year Asael’s grandson, Joseph the Prophet, received his first vision, Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, in denouncing the sectarian priests, declared, “The genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored, such as it was preached and practiced by Himself. Very soon after His death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye. . . .”
Asael Smith’s father, Samuel Smith Jr., (1714-1785) was not only a soldier, though briefly, in the American Revolutionary Army, but according to family tradition he was chairman of the committee of freedom fighters responsible for the so-called Boston Tea Party which precipitated outbreak of the war for independence. (Samuel Adams is generally credited with leadership in that famous act of defiance.) Smith also served as a delegate to the Provincial Congress at Concord, Massachusetts, in 1774-75, just a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Thus he must rightly be regarded as one of the founding fathers of the nation, though in a lesser role than some of the better known leaders of the revolution.3
Asael Smith (1744-1830), Joseph Smith Sr.’s father, might be considered the first generation Mormon, although he did not actually join the Church, having died just six months after it was organized. But it is in Asael that the several lines of leading families of Smith in the Church converge. He had several sons and daughters. Four sons, Joseph, Asael, Silas and John, joined the Church; two sons, Samuel and Stephen, and one daughter, Sarah Sanford, died before the Church was restored. One son, Jesse, his eldest child, was 62 years old when the Church was restored, and was much opposed to it. In the family history, there is no mention of Asael’s three other daughters, Priscilla Waller, Mary Pierce, and Susannah Smith, having joined the Church.
Asael had felt impressed that a prophet would one day arise in his family. “It has been borne in upon my soul that one of my descendants will promulgate a work to revolutionize the world of religious faith,” he had declared. Joseph the Prophet recorded in his journal for May 17, 1836, that, “My grandfather, Asael Smith, long ago predicted that there would be a prophet raised up in his family, and my grandfather was fully satisfied that it was fulfilled in me. My grandfather Asael died in East Stockholm, St. Lawrence County, New York, after having the Book of Mormon, and [he] read it nearly through, and he declared that I was the very prophet that he had long known would come in his family. . . . Both Asael Smith and his wife Mary Duty Smith accepted in full the mission of their grandson, Joseph, and rejoiced greatly in the restoration of the gospel before their departure from mortal life.” Mary Duty Smith, incidentally, lived to the age of 93, so perhaps President Joseph Fielding Smith inherited the trait of longevity from her.4
“I feel myself bound to defend the innocent always when opportunity offers. Had not those who are notorious for lies and dishonesty, also assailed the character of the family I should pass over them here in silence; but now I shall not forbear. It has been industriously circulated that they were dishonest, deceitful and vile. On this I have the testimony of responsible persons, who have said and will say, that this is basically false; and besides, a personal acquaintance for seven years, has demonstrated that all the difficulty is, they were once poor, (yet industrious,) and have now, by the help of God, arisen to note, and their names are like to, (indeed they will,) be handed down to posterity, and had among the righteous.~They are industrious, honest, virtuous and liberal to all. This is their character; and though many take advantage of their liberality, God will reward them; 5
William Smith (Joseph Smith’s brother)
“My mother, who was a very pious woman and much interested in the welfare of her children, both here and hereafter, made use of every means which her parental love could suggest, to get us engaged in seeking for our soul’s salvation. . . She prevailed on us to attend the meetings, and almost the whole family became interested in the matter, and seekers after truth. . . . [We] always had family prayer since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, . . . and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, . . . After the prayer we had a song we would sing.” 6
“It is said that Joseph and the rest of the family were lazy and indolent. We never heard of such a thing until after Joseph told his vision, and not then by our friends. Whenever the neighbors wanted a good days work done they knew where they could get a good hand and they were not particular to take any of the other boys before Joseph either. We cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber I ever saw. We had a good place, but it required a great deal of labor to make it a good place. We also had on it from twelve to fifteen hundred sugar trees, and to gather the sap and make sugar and molasses from that number of trees was no lazy job. We worked hard to clear our place and the neighbors were a little jealous. If you will figure up how much work it would take to clear sixty acres of heavy timber land, heavier than any here, trees you could not conveniently cut down, you can tell whether we were lazy or not, and Joseph did his share of the work with the rest of the boys.”7
Lucy Mack Smith
Lucy Mack Smith shows how those around them had confidence, respect and trusted them. The Smith family had arranged to make the final payment on their farm. However, while Joseph and his father were in Pennsylvania working for Josiah Stole, some men had cunningly lied about why they were gone and succeeded in getting the agent to sell the Smith farm to them. “Hyrum, in a short time went to an old friend, Dr. Robinson, and related to him the grievous story. Whereupon the old gentleman sat down and wrote at some considerable length the character of the family—our industry and faithful exertions to secure a home, with many commendations calculated to beget confidence in us with respect to business transactions. And keeping this writing in his own hands, he went through the village and in an hour procured sixty subscribers. He then sent the same, by the hand of Hyrum, to the land agent who lived in Canandaigua.” 8
Richard Loyd Anderson
His first visions came in his youth; hence the importance of understanding his family environment. An objective and intimate picture is possible of the influences upon young Joseph Smith. More is known than ever before of the parents and grandparents that fashioned the ideals of his home. Later in life Joseph Smith spoke of “love of liberty” (certainly one of his dominant characteristics) that was “diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.” fn In their homes were molded the personalities of Joseph Smith, Sr., and his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, parents and creators of the Prophet’s immediate environment. . . .
His grandparents deserve to stand on their own merits. Their lives are here studied in detail from their own writings, enriched by early family histories, letters, and recollections, supplemented by town and church minutes, and checked against deeds, wills, censuses, and assessment lists. A story of responsibility and moral heroism emerges that matches the personal philosophy that both grandfathers candidly expressed. If they did not achieve national fame, they at least represented the solid virtues that founded their nation. Their moral excellence was Joseph Smith’s heritage.
. . . the main environmental forces about the Mormon Prophet can be clearly identified. Value structures are formed by conscious and unconscious reaction to personalities clustered around the impressionable individual. Joseph Smith’s warm love for his parents and their positive affection for their parents are historical realities. Joseph Smith was deeply influenced by his older brothers and even more by his parents. Through them the ideals of his grandparents were effectively transmitted to the young man who claimed visions. Any other view badly underestimates the powers of obedience and imitation that characterize his family.
The riddle of Joseph Smith exists partly because malicious detractors slandered the rising Prophet. It could hardly be otherwise in a static, rural society that aggressively resisted change. In Joseph Smith’s own words, the moment his revelations were known, “rumor with her thousand tongues was all the time employed in circulating tales about my father’s family, and about myself.” Such distortion demands knowledge of what went on within his family. Outside sources cannot really solve this problem, for those with the inside story are insiders. In other words, statements of spiteful neighbors are beside the point when the Smith family itself is available for study. Far too many biographers have believed accusations without really investigating their basis. That cannot be done without entering the Smith household and understanding its motives and manners. Joseph Smith was still a young man, heavily under his family’s influence, when he announced his early visions. If the grandparents are only part of the picture, they are nevertheless a very significant part. Their profiles outline the characteristics that came to Joseph Smith through his parents. The convictions and attitudes of these grandparents go far in portraying the true personality of their grandson.9
B. H. Roberts comments on the charge that Joseph Smith’s ancestors had a spirit of restlessness:
“And what is there in this `restlessness’ that was reprehensible. And why should it subject these men to the spiteful epithets of `tramp’ and `vagabond’? It was only such `restlessness as sought to better industrial conditions by change of habitat; and the soil of New England, sterile at best, and the uncertainty of the climate in the hill country of Vermont and New Hampshire, at least justified if they did not compel the removals. It was the `restlessness’ that sent the people of New England, Pennsylvania and Maryland through the gateway to the west provided by the head waters of the Ohio, into the Western Reserve; and the people of Virginia and the South Atlantic States, over the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee; and finally westward to the Pacific coast. It was `restlessness’ that led Americans to take possession of their heritage-was this reprehensible?
“The biographers of Lincoln have to meet this same charge of a `restless,’ migratory spirit in the great president’s immediate ancestors; and Mr. Henry C. Whitney, in his biographical treatise Lincoln the Citizen, published in 1907, in defense of the migrations of the Lincoln family, says: `Migration is an American institution. Instances are not rare of men who have actually lived in a dozen different states; and California, Oregon, and Washington are largely peopled by men who commenced their tours of migration in the Atlantic States, and by slow approaches ultimately reached the ultimate limits of western civilization. The Marshall family, whence came the great Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshal, could be charged with the same `fault’ if such it be. Thomas Marshall, father of John Marshall, left the ancestral farm in Westmoreland county, abandoned it in fact; and settled in Prince William county farther up the Potomac; thence a few years later, he moved into a valley of the Blue Ridge mountains. Years later came another `restlessness’ which carried Thomas Marshall over the Blue Ridge into the far distant new settlements of Kentucky. And what of it? 10
On the charge of illiteracy:
“Such illiteracy, then, as may be, in a limited way, attributed to the ancestors of the Prophet, or himself, was that enforced upon them by environment, by lack of opportunity by the fault of the times, of their location and of their fortunes; not a deliberate choice of illiteracy in the midst of opportunities to have it otherwise; and hence they bear the charge sans reproach.” 11
Regarding the charge of being irreligious:
“Yes; the Prophet’s ancestors were credulous in that some of them believed that they were healed of bodily ailments by the power of faith in God. Others had dreams, as their neighbors had, that they could refer to no other than the spiritual forces of this God’s world. . . . To be credulous in such things was to be normal people. To have been incredulous in such matters in that age and locality, would have stamped them abnormal.” 12
“Everybody says Joseph Smith was lazy because of the things he didn’t do, but what about the things he did do? What good does it do to say that you, with your tiny routine of daily busywork, think another man is lazy if that man happens to accomplish more than ten ordinary men in a short lifetime? Joseph Smith’s activities are a matter of record and they are phenomenal. You might as well claim that Horowitz doesn’t know how to play the piano to a man who owns a library of Horowitz recordings, or that Van Gogh couldn’t paint to the owner of an original Van Gogh, or that Dempsey couldn’t fight to a man who had fought him, as to maintain that Joseph Smith was a lazy loafer to the historian who gets dizzy merely trying to follow him through a few short years of his tremendous activity. I think this constantly reiterated unfailing charge that Joseph Smith was a raggle-taggle, down-at-the-heels, sloppy, lazy, good-for-nothing supplies the best possible test for the honesty and reliability of his critics. Some of them reach almost awesome heights of mendacity and effrontery when, like Mrs. Brodie, they solemnly inform us that Joseph Smith, the laziest man on earth, produced in a short time, by his own efforts, the colossally complex and difficult Book of Mormon. 13
“Then what kind of a community was Palmyra . . . to allow such monstrous goings-on to continue year after year without so much as raising a finger of protest? The Smiths, we are told, `were the terror and torment of the neighborhood,’ . . . `a pest to society,’ says Mr. Howe; theft, fraud, and `unspeakable lewdness’ were the order of the day~but never an arrest or trial. Those who give the most lurid reports claim to have their knowledge from the most intimate and prolonged association with the Smiths: a day or a week of such association would disgust and sicken any normal person, yet these eminently respectable people . . . go on month after month and year after year receiving and encouraging the confidences of Smith and his family. . . . Here is a nice impasse: Chase and Ingersoll and Stafford, who knew him so well describe his as a brawler, who `frequently got drunk, and when intoxicated was very quarrelsome,’ while Tucker and Harding, who knew his just as well assure us that Smith `was noted as never having had a fight or quarrel with any other person. . .’ Whom are we to believe?” 14
Those who knew him
Orlando Saunders said of the Smith family, “I always thought them honest; they were owing me some money when they left here; that is, the old man and Hyrum did, and Martin Harris. One of them came back in about a year and paid me.” 15
“They [Smith family] have all worked for me many a day. . . they were very good people; Young Joe, (as we called him then), has worked for me, and he was a good worker they all were” 16
Joseph Smith Ancestors:
Lydia Gates Mack
“During this sickness she called her children around her bed and, after exhorting them always to remember the instructions which she had given them—to fear God and walk uprightly before Him.” 17
Solomon said of his wife, that not only did she exhibit “the polish of education, but she also possessed that inestimable jewel which in a wife and mother of a family is truly a pearl of great price, namely, a pious and devotional character.” 18
For,” he [Solomon Mack] writes, “as our children were deprived of schools she assumed charge of their education, and performed the duties of instructress as none, save a mother, is capable of. Precepts, accompanied with examples such as theirs, were calculated to make impressions on the minds of the young, never to be forgotten. She, besides instructing them in the various branches of an ordinary education, was in the habit of calling them together both morning and evening, and teaching them to pray, meanwhile urging them the necessity of love towards each other as well as devotional feelings towards Him who made them.”
In this manner their children became confirmed in the virtues and were established in faith in their Redeemer. 19
When the barter economy of New England caught Samuel Smith, Father Smith’s grandfather, by surprise and he died insolvent, Father Smith’s father, Asael, said, “I am not willing that my father, who has done so much business, should have it said of him that he died insolvent.” Thus Asael, who had been too sick to do any but small clerical tasks for three years, and while burdened with the responsibilities of a large and growing family, concluded, in his own words, “Notwithstanding all my embarrassments, I will undertake to settle my father’s estate and save his name from going down to posterity as an insolvent debtor.”
This decision cost Asael five years of hard labor during which time he paid off in a depressed economy the debts his father had incurred in an inflationed economy. The surge and thunder of illness, growing family needs, caring for his father’s widow, and the press of unrelenting and hungering creditors left him, in the words of John Smith, “almost destitute of means to support his family,”fn but nobly enriched in character. Thus Asael personified honesty for the betterment and instruction of both his children and his larger posterity. 20
No responsible biographer can call Asael irreligious, for he held deeply personal convictions about God. “Put your whole trust solely in him,” he counseled his wife: “He never did nor never will forsake any that trusted in him.” To his children he stressed daily reverence:
Do all to God in a serious manner. When you think of him, speak of him, pray to him, or in any way make your addresses to his great majesty, be in good earnest. Trifle not with his name nor with his attributes, nor call him to witness to anything but is absolute truth.
If Asael were not doctrinally orthodox, the orthodox of his day were often near-sighted Christians. His records in the family Bible show that he honored it, and his quotations prove that he read and believed it. Saturated with passages on Christ’s mission, Asael wrote to “pour out my heart” in witness that “the soul is immortal” and that all “stand in need of a Savior,” who, in the words of Asael’s text, is the “mediator between God and men,” giving himself “a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). In fact, Asael devoted about one-fifth of his “will” to scriptural proof that no salvation comes through self-righteousness, but that “sinners must be saved by the righteousness of Christ alone.” 21
Mary Duty Smith
From a family of courageous Revolutionary soldiers, Mary Duty distinguished herself in rearing eleven children. fn She was an example of industry to her family, for John remembered his mother as `a first rate dairy woman.’ “22
- Brigham Young, in Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954, p. 108
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 1: 7 – 8.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., and John J. Stewart, The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972], 34
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., and John J. Stewart, The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972], 32
- Times and Seasons, vol 2. p. 396
- William Smith on Mormonism: This book contains a true account of the origin of the Book of Mormon, Lamoni, Iowa, Printed at Herald Steam Book and Job Office. 1883
- “W[illia]m. B. Smith’s last Statement,” [John W. Peterson to Editor], Zion’s Ensign (Independence, Missouri) 5/3 (13 January 1894): 6. Reprinted in “Statement of William Smith, Concerning Joseph, the Prophet,” Deseret Evening News 27 (20 January 1894): 11; and “The Testimony of William Smith,” Millennial Star 61 (26 February 1894): 132-34; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:513.
- Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 96.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], pp. 1-4
- B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1: 23.
- B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1: 26.
- B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1: 26.
- Hugh Nibley, Of All Things! Classic Quotations from Hugh Nibley, 2nd ed., rev. and expanded, compiled and edited by Gary P. Gillum [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1993], 112.
- Hugh Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, edited by David Whittaker [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991], 168.
- Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” Brigham Young University Studies, spring 1970, 309–10.
- Saint’s Herald 28 (1881): 165
- Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 30.
- Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, cited in Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, p. 27.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1950], 27.
- Mark L. McConkie, The Father of the Prophet: Stories and Insights from the Life of Joseph Smith, Sr. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993], 149.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], 106.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], 108 – 109.