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Joseph Smith was the fourth child and third son of Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith,1 and was born December 3, 1805, at Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont. He had the usual training and background of the New England boy of that period. His parents though poor, had perhaps more than the average common school education, as both were schoolteachers at one time or another in their native Vermont. As a business man, Joseph, Sr., evidently, was not a success. He worked hard all his life, but had more than once been a victim of overconfidence and shrewd speculators. His son inherited that overconfidence, and suffered for it. Though with the charm peculiar to those who have no thought of commercialism, he drew to his side many tried and true friends who would stay with him to the finish, yet to the end of his life the younger Joseph was never able to cope with the insidious advances and devious tactics of wily speculators and sycophants. After a series of crop failures in Vermont, many farmers became discouraged and moved to the newer State of New York, the Smiths among them.
The place selected was Palmyra, a post-township in what was then Ontario County (now Wayne County), a place fifteen miles north of Canandaigua, and about two hundred twenty-three miles west of Albany. Here in what was known as Phelps and Gorham's Purchase was much "new land" and at the same time "the settlements were of such a date as to give farming ease and independence to the inhabitants."2 Palmyra itself was a "place of considerable business,"3 the business evidently being that of weaving, for the town boasted a yearly output of 53,719 yards of cloth. There was also a "handsome collection of houses"4 in 1810, housing a population of 2,187 souls, grouped in 355 families, with 290 heads of families able to qualify financially as senatorial electors. There was a "large meeting of Quakers, and one Episcopal church"5 and a "competent number of common schools."6 Through the full length of the little town from west to east ran Mud Creek "affording fine advantages for mills" and "of some little use for navigation"7 (Palmyra was later to become an Erie Canal town.) The main road from Canandaigua to Sodas Bay led across the east part of the town, with "many other roads in different directions,"8 truly no mean pioneer village.
Upon the enigma that was the real Joseph Smith, writers will probably never even approach agreement. To his six feet in stature, his physical strength, his fair hair, and his blue eyes, perhaps all might agree, but beyond that, no man has ever been characterized so variously. For who has yet analyzed the mysterious elements of flamed genius? Who can deny some of the attributes of genius to this dynamic young man? Though his life was snuffed out before he reached his meridian, from the day he made claim to a revelation from God to the end of his brief career, he dominated his surroundings so powerfully for fourteen years, that the story of the making of the West cannot be told without tribute to him and that "peculiar" people who, under his leadership became exponents of a philosophy of life that set them apart from others of their kind.
To such spirits as his, restless, tragic, but always spiritually free, vitalized by some perennial inner spring of imagination, courage, and self-faith, belong the youth of every new movement. When he said of himself that his name would be known for good and evil among all people, he spoke truly. Some have called him weak. Yet nature allotted to him that gift no training can emulate, to call men to his side and keep them there, through scenes that tried the sturdiest souls. Alexander W. Doniphan, who knew him so well in Missouri, used whimsically to say that Lyman Wight was the bravest man he ever knew; Sidney Rigdon the greatest orator, but no one else could have them all working together, but Joe Smith. "Ah," remarked David Whitmer in his old age, "Joseph was a good man, but he had a hard task to manage with the people in the early days of the church. They were sectarian ... and came in with all of their own views, and were hard to manage."9
And yet, in a little more than a decade he drew and held to his standard over 200,000 of these diverse personalities, and that too in spite of the most severe persecution:
I don't think the man ever lived who was more beloved by his people; they would have interposed their own lives to shield him. The world knew him not. In the palmy days of Nauvoo, visitors were constantly arriving, with curiosity sharpened by Madam Rumor, to interview the man of whom so much was said. They beheld a beautiful city, where once was a stagnant, fever-breeding locality; a well-ordered community of 25,000 persons, as busy and industrious as bees, gathered from all quarters through the influence of the gospel, and presided over by a man whom all loved, and whose lightest wish was respected . . . . In those days I never saw a drunken person staggering on the streets, nor heard a profane oath uttered by any of the multitudes daily met there.10
"David Whitmer," says a reporter to the Chicago Tribune in 1886, "always asserted that Joseph Smith, as he knew him, was a righteous, God-fearing man." "I was well and intimately acquainted with the Prophet Joseph," said Lucius Merchant, one of the pilgrims from the loved city, after more than sixty years had passed, and he lay upon his deathbed. "I saw and heard him, both in private and public. I never heard him say an immoral word or do an unkind act. We loved him deeply, and when he was martyred, you may be sure the mourning and distress can never be imagined; known only to those who were there."11
Even the children remembered him, and carried the memory of his kindness down into their own old age.
I can remember (I shall never forget) the day when Joseph and Hyrum were assassinated at Carthage. It was the darkest day of my life [wrote one white-haired old lady, telling of a life more than full of pioneer danger and adventure], no scene before nor since has struck such terror to my heart. Joseph, when living, often patted my head and said, "You're a little Ephraimite." How I loved that man! And I know now even as I knew then, that he was a man of God, a true prophet.12
Again she speaks of him as a man who "would divide his last loaf with his brethren."13
He particularly loved children, always noticed them as he went along the street, and found time from a very busy life to play with them, recorded ofttimes the clever sayings of his own children in his journal, told of taking his children for a ride in the new carriage, and of "sliding on the ice with little Frederick."
He seldom passed a group of boys playing ball on the green, but he took turn at the bat. After two or three rounds, batting the ball over the fence, he would say, "Over the fence is out," and go on to his office or council meeting, with the adoring eyes of his small companions following him admiringly.
Among animals, horses and dogs were favorites with him, but he could hardly endure to see cruelty to any creature. He did not like to see a man kill even a snake needlessly, and at one time a reprimand from him to a surly follower who kicked a stray dog nearly provoked a church court. His black horse Charley receives an honorable mention in his journal, as if he were a human friend. And was not such a horse as "Charley," companion of so many of his wanderings, really a friend? A second favorite horse called by some whim "Joe Duncan" after a political archenemy, was commonly addressed as "Governor" in mild derision of the gubernatorial aspirations of his namesake. Then there was his great mastiff Major, who faithfully served and protected him all his life, and would have followed him to his death if he could. "Beware of a man whom children and dogs do not like," has often been said. Not always perhaps a safe standard of judgment, and yet what is a greater measure of a man's humbleness than his kindness to the weak and helpless?
Throughout his life he kept open house, alike to friend and stranger. Says one, "I have found Joseph Smith living in a tent, having given up his home as a hospital for the sick."14 His home was always filled with the ill, the lame, the unfortunate; and many are the stories told of his sacrifice of self, his kindness to the poor, his sympathy for the unfortunate, and his perhaps too ready forgiveness for the erring.
He has been called unscrupulous. In his journal, intended for no eyes but his own, he once wrote, "My heart is full of desire today, to be blessed with prosperity, until I will be able to pay all my debts; for it is the delight of my soul to be honest. O Lord, that thou knowest right well."15 When states and cities were repudiating the debts caused by the depression of 1837, he and his church were attempting to meet their obligations, despite the universal financial wreckage about them.
In an age where intemperance was the rule, he preached temperance. "The statesman of the thirties who did not drink heavily was a rarity. Just as whisky, brandy, gin, and wine were served in great decanters on the tables at hotels, at the boarding houses every guest had his bottle or interest in a bottle."16 At the national capital among the leading men of the nation, temperance was as rare as drunkenness is today:
On the way to the capitol the statesman could quench his thirst at numerous bars--and often did. And in the basement of the capitol building whiskey could be had. Never in American history have so many promising careers been wrecked by drunkenness as during the third decade; frequently national celebrities would appear upon the floor of the House or Senate in a state of intoxication, and at least on one occasion, the greater part of the House was hilariously drunk.17
At such a time in the history of the country, before anyone ever dreamed of prohibition, Joseph Smith wrote:
"O my God! how long will this monster intemperance find its victims on the earth? Methinks until . . . Christ's kingdom becomes universal."18 He was one of the first thinkers to associate temperance with religion.
Unschooled, he was all his life an eager student. Forced by reason of his position to write much, he longed to sprinkle his letters with the foreign phrases so favored by rhetoricians of his time, an ambition he was at length able to indulge, with little improvement to his naturally plain English diction. As long as he lived he was taking lessons in something. Very early in his life he confided to his journal:
My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of the languages until I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough. At any rate, so long as I do live, I am determined to make this my object; and with the blessing of God I shall succeed to my satisfactions.19
He has been called a bigot. History shows him tolerant. He "wept over the mob of Missouri and Philadelphia alike," says Lyman Wight, when in a race riot against the Negroes in 1834, thirty houses were destroyed, a church pulled down, and several killed in the "city of brotherly love." Joseph Smith, referring to the burning of the Ursaline Convent near Boston in 1834, wrote:
The early settlers of Boston (the Emporium of New England) who had fled from their mother country to avoid persecution and death, soon became so lost to principles of justice and religious liberty as to whip and hang the Baptist and the Quaker, who, like themselves, had fled from tyranny to a land of freedom; and the Fathers of Salem, from 1691 to 1693, whipped, imprisoned, tortured, and hung many of their citizens for supposed witchcraft; and quite recently, while boasting of her light and knowledge, of her laws and religion, as surpassed by none on earth, has New England been guilty of burning a Catholic convent in the vicinity of Charlestown , and of scattering the inmates to the four winds; yes, in sight of the very spot where the fire of the American Independence was first kindled, where a monument is now erecting in memory of the battle of Bunker Hill, and the fate of the immortal Warren, who bled, who died on those sacred heights, to purchase religious liberty for his country; in sight of this very spot, have the religionists of the nineteenth century demolished a noble brick edifice, hurling its inhabitants forth upon a cold, unfeeling world for protection and subsistence.20
He has been called lazy and shiftless. His journals show days filled with more activity than the average man could encompass in twice the time. Men who were his employers in his boyhood were numbered among the most enthusiastic of his followers, Josiah Stoal, Joseph Knight, Ezra Thayre,21 and all unite in praising his honesty and industry.
He was a man and had a man's faults, but his motives and ambitions were pure. He was not a thief, a libertine, or a charlatan. When a man has a "yellow streak," it goes all the way through. He was fitted for leadership by nature. He had never studied psychology; never heard of the expulsive power of new affection, but when the depression of 1837 hit the church in Kirtland, burdened as was the rest of the country with the collapse of overspeculation, he said, "God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of the church," and he approached the young church, threatened with destruction by internal strife, proposed the church's first foreign mission, and sent off to England, after nine days of preparation, the first missionaries to another land! Six men, limited financially to a gift of five dollars from a young lady, Mary Fielding, but unlimited in spirit because of a boundless faith and a great courage. And the mind of the church, unhappily rent by a national crisis, united with renewed zeal on the first foreign mission of the church. From a human standpoint it was a bold stroke, a foolhardy one; from the standpoint of prophetic vision it was more than justified. The mission was a success--a great success!
Perhaps as Edward Page said, "The world never knew him!" Perhaps his life and character have yet to be properly appraised. And yet even in his own time Josiah Quincy gave him almost too extravagant praise:
It is by no means improbable that some future textbook, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace to their descendants. History deals in surprises and paradoxes quite as startling as this. The man who established a religion in this age of free debate, who was and is today accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High--such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, impostor, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us. Fanatics and impostors are living and dying every day, and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained . . . . Joseph Smith, claiming to be an inspired teacher, faced adversity such as few men have been called to meet, enjoyed a brief season of prosperity such as few men have ever attained, and, finally, forty-three days after I saw him, went cheerfully to a martyr's death.22
But in 1827 back in New York, before the world had anything to say about him, he was but an inexperienced youth, with confidence in his mission and a bundle of golden plates inscribed in an unknown language, sadly in need of help, and nowhere to turn for it. He did as he had done before in his life. He depended upon the Lord, and the Lord did not fail him.
1 Ancestry and Posterity of Joseph Smith and Emma Hale, by Mary Audentia Smith
Anderson, Independence, Missouri, 1929, contains a detailed account of ancestry of Joseph
2 A Gazeteer of New York, by Horatio Gates Spofford, Albany, 1813, page 27.
9 "Letter of E. C. Briggs in Saints' Herald, Volume 31, page 397.
10 Letter of Edward Page in Saints' Herald, Volume 3, page 36.
11 Chicago Tribune for December 15, 1885; Saints' Herald, Volume 33, page 14, Testimony of the Past by Alma Fyrando, Journal of History, Volume 3. page 252.
12 "Autobiography, Sylvia C. Webb, Saints' Herald, March 24, 1915, page 290.
13 Ibid., page 91.
14 "Autobiography," Moses Nickerson, Saints' Herald, Volume 17, page 424, seq.
15 Church History, Volume 1, page 586.
16 Figures of the Past, by Josiah Quincy.
17 Party Battles of the Jackson Period, by C. G. Bowers, page 19. 18 Church History, Volume 2, page 31.
19 Ibid., page 26.
20 Church History, Volume 2, pages 81, 82.
21 A bridge, dam, and mill builder near Palmyra. See Memoirs, W. W. Blair, pages 39, 40.
22 Figures of the Past, by Josiah Quincy, pages 376, 377, quoted in Church History, Volume 1, page 3.
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