“The Human Qualities of Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Ensign, Jan. 1971, 35
The Prophet of the Restoration has been portrayed as a philosopher, community builder, military commander, and visionary. But the rapid growth of the Church under his leadership suggests a warm and attractive personality which appealed to all ages and classes of people. Joseph Smith, divinely appointed to restore the gospel in this dispensation, was a vigorous and resourceful, but also a jovial and exciting leader. Examination of the wealth of material that relates to Joseph’s life impresses one that his personal qualities, as well as his teachings, played a prominent role in the restoration. To use a word often heard today, Joseph Smith possessed charisma.
Joseph Smith grew up in a family that enjoyed temporal and spiritual unity, thus exemplifying in his own early experience the importance of the family in personal growth and development. Those who knew the Smith family, and the memoirs of Lucy Smith, mother of the Prophet, convey images of this family solidarity. The Smiths worked together to make maple syrup, went out in groups of two or three to work for neighbors, sat around the fireside entertaining each other with real and imagined stories of human experiences, and walked to nearby villages to attend Sunday “preaching services.”
Touching incidents in the life of the Prophet reveal his concern for his parents: his tearful plea to his mother to go out of the room during the operation on his leg so she would not have to see him suffer; his rejoicing upon the baptism of his father in 1830; his frantic attempts to reach through a break in the wagon canvas to hold his mother’s hand before he was taken away to be shot; his week-long vigils at the bedsides of his parents when they were ill; and his deference to his father’s intervention during a dispute with his brother William.
“Blessed is my mother,” Joseph wrote in his diary, “for her soul is ever filled with benevolence and philanthropy … and blessed is my father, for the hand of the Lord shall be over him.” What a blessing it is, he said in 1835, to have the society of parents “whose mature years and experience render them capable of administering the most wholesome advice.” Soon after settling in each place of gathering, the Prophet arranged for a house to be built for his parents so he would be blessed with their company and advice. Joseph felt strongly about the prerogatives of parents, and cautioned missionaries not to baptize young people without the approval of their parents. As an example, when the Prophet called for the “strength of Israel to go forth to redeem Zion” in 1834, one teenager, John Riggs, offered to join the cause, in opposition to his parents’ wishes. Joseph said to the eager boy: “Go home to your father, and obey him until you are twenty-one, and you shall have all the blessings promised those who go to build up Zion.”
The strength of the Joseph Smith, Sr., family is reflected in the cheerful and substantial support which each of them gave to the restoration, and, more particularly, in the David-and-Jonathan friendship of Joseph and Hyrum. They were nearly always together; one was not complete without the other, and, as Joseph said, “I loved Hyrum with a love that is stronger than death.” “No matter how often or when or where Joseph and Hyrum met,” wrote William Taylor, a family friend, “it was always with the same expressions of supreme joy. … both [of these kindred spirits] were filled to overflowing with the gift and power of the Holy Ghost!”
Influenced by this example of family love and unity, Joseph’s marriage to Emma Hale in 1827 produced a warm and affectionate relationship that continued until the Prophet’s assassination seventeen years later. His letters to Emma (and Emma’s letters to him), his private diaries, his official histories—all of these demonstrate Joseph’s devotion to his own family and their devotion to him. “When I want a little bread and milk,” he told William W. Phelps, “my wife loads the table with so many good things it destroys my appetite.”
As with every couple, the Prophet and Emma occasionally disagreed. When these disagreements became serious, the couple had recourse to the Holy Spirit. One morning while staying at the Whitmers, not long after their marriage, Joseph and Emma had “some words.” When Joseph went upstairs to translate the plates, “All was dark.” So the Prophet walked out into the woods to pray, then returned to ask Emma’s forgiveness. Back at work, everything went well with the translation. Later in their marriage, when they were preparing for a parade in his honor, Emma complained to the Prophet that he was not properly dressed. Joseph took time to change to his “best clothes.”
The first child of Joseph and Emma, Alvah, died in Harmony, Pennsylvania, while Joseph was still engaged in translating the plates. Emma’s second pregnancy resulted in the birth of twins—Thaddeus and Louisa—both of whom lived only about three hours. The Prophet learned that on the very same day Sister John Murdock died after giving birth to twins, so he and the grief-stricken Emma were given permission to adopt the Murdock twins, who were named Joseph and Julia. The twins later became ill with the measles, and both Joseph and Emma stayed up several nights to nurse them. One night, noting that Emma was very tired, Joseph suggested she should “retire to rest” with the girl, while he would stay up with the boy, who was the sicker of the two. During a lull in little Joseph’s crying, Joseph dozed on the trundle bed. Suddenly the Prophet was awakened by Emma screaming “Murder!” and Joseph found himself being carried out the door in the hands of a dozen men. Leaving the door ajar, the mob exposed the boy to bitter weather, and he died a few days later. Julia, however, lived until she was about fifty years of age. Joseph was very fond of Julia, and many of his letters to Emma mentioned his love for her.
Despite a turbulent life punctuated with frequent mobbings, imprisonments, judicial proceedings, and other difficulties involving his role as President of the Church, Joseph was with Emma during most of her confinements. Mercy Thompson recalled his tenderness: “I saw him by the bed-side of Emma, his wife, in sickness, exhibiting all the solicitude and sympathy possible for the tenderest of hearts and the most affectionate of natures to feel.” When he was imprisoned in Missouri for several months in 1838–39, he wrote Emma: “Those little children [Julia, Joseph, Frederick, and Alexander] are subjects of my meditation continually. Tell them that Father is yet alive. God grant that he may see them again. … If I do not meet you again in this life—may God grant that we may—may we meet in heaven. … my heart is full.”
When the sixth son of Joseph and Emma, Don Carlos, died at the age of fourteen months in 1841, the Prophet asked a neighbor, Sister McIntire, for the privilege of adopting one of her baby twin girls. The mother didn’t want to give her child up, but she finally consented for him to take one of them, on the condition that he take her back home each night. Margarette McIntire later stated: “This he did punctually himself, and also came after it each morning. One evening he did not come with it at the usual time, and mother went down to the Mansion to see what was the matter, and there sat the Prophet with the baby wrapped up in a little silk quilt. He was trotting it on his knee, and singing to it to get it quiet before starting out, as it had been fretting. The child soon became quiet when my mother took it, and the Prophet came up home with her. Next morning when he came after the baby, mother handed him Sarah, the other baby. They looked so much alike that strangers could not tell them apart; but as mother passed him the other baby he shook his head and said, ‘This is not my little Mary.’ Then she took Mary from the cradle and gave her to him, and he [proudly] carried her home with him. … After his wife became better in health he did not take our baby any more, but often came in to … play with her.”
Joseph enjoyed his family. There are dozens of references in his official diary that read like this one of March 27, 1834: “Remained at home and had great joy with my family.” Indeed, according to a distant cousin, George A. Smith, one convert family apostatized because, when they arrived in Kirtland from the East, Joseph came downstairs from the room where he had been translating “by the gift and power of God” and began to romp and play with his children. In their view, this was not proper behavior for a prophet.
The Prophet’s journal mentions going with his family to concerts, the theater, circus performances, and taking excursions on Mississippi River boats. The family often enjoyed “home evenings” around the fireside, playing games, reading, and studying together. On February 8, 1843, the Prophet recorded in his history, “At four in the afternoon, I went out with my little Frederick, to exercise myself by sliding on the ice.”
Such incidents reveal the warmth of Joseph’s personality, his sociability, and his sympathetic response to the needs and desires of others. In Kirtland, according to one reminiscence, when wagonloads of grown people and children came in from the country to meeting, “Joseph would make his way to as many of the wagons as he could, and cordially shake the hand of each person. Every child and young babe in the company was especially noticed by him and tenderly taken by the hand, with his kind words and blessings. He loved innocence and purity and he seemed to find it in the greatest perfection with the prattling child.”
Evaline Burdick Johnson remembered that as a child in Kirtland her mother had put her in the middle of the floor while cleaning house. The little girl heard a man’s voice, looked up, and saw a tall, smiling man come up the steps. He called something to the mother and she told him to come in. “When he saw me,” said the girl, “he picked me up and sat me on his left arm and crossed the room to a large mirror. We both looked into the glass. He then turned and sat me down and asked mother where my father was. When he went out of the room, mother called me to her and told me he was the Prophet of the Lord, and what a good man he was.”
In a similar vein the Prophet called at a house to see a man on business and found instead a child with a swollen sore throat, in much pain. “He took me up in his lap,” said the child later, “and gently anointed my throat with consecrated oil and administered to me, and I was healed. I had no more pain nor soreness.”
Joseph’s interest in others, and his concern for their welfare, was felt by nearly everybody. He enjoyed wrestling, even as an adult; he frequently played catch, “pulled sticks,” and engaged in similar contests with young people. He circulated “without reserve,” often uttered jokes for the amusement of his companions, and “moved upon the same plane with the humblest and poorest of his friends; to him there were no strangers.” As did other Church officials, he often performed manual labor, and there are many references in his journals to digging ditches, carrying the trunks of arriving passengers into the Mansion House, gathering apples, plowing in his garden, hoeing potatoes, drawing wood, and work of like character.
On another occasion, Andrew Workman and other men were sitting on the fence near the Prophet’s home one afternoon, as the Prophet spoke to them. A man came up and said that a poor brother who lived out some distance from town had had his house burn down the night before. The men all began to get long faces and say how sorry they were. But “Joseph put his hand in his pocket, took out five dollars, and said, ‘I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do the rest of you feel sorry for him?’”
Shortly before his martyrdom, the Prophet awaited some members of the Nauvoo Legion who had been called into the city to protect the people. It had been raining, and the roads were bad. All but eight of the seventy-five men went afoot, and in places they waded waist-deep in water. “We reached Nauvoo about daylight,” says the narrator, “and encamped in front of Foster’s big brick house near the temple. Our camp equipage was placed by the side street. While I was guarding the baggage, Joseph the Prophet rode up to the log, reached his hand to me, and inquired after uncle and aunt. He held me by the hand and pulled me forward until I was obliged to step upon the log. When turning his horse sideways he drew me step by step to near the end of the log, when, seeing that each foot left marks of blood upon the bark, he asked me what was the matter with my feet. I replied that the prairie grass had cut my shoes to pieces and wounded my feet, but they would soon be alright. I noticed the hand he raised to his face was wet and looking up I saw his cheeks covered with tears. He placed his hand on my head and said, ‘God bless you, my dear boy,’ and asked if others of the company were in the same plight. I replied that a number of them were. Turning his face toward Mr. Lathrup as the latter came to the door of his store, the Prophet said: ‘Let these men have some shoes.’ Lathrup said: ‘I have no shoes.’ Joseph’s quick reply was ‘Let them have boots, then.’ Joseph then turned to me and said, ‘Johnny, the troops will be disbanded and return home. I shall go to Carthage for trial, under the protection the governor will give.’ Then leaning toward me, with one hand on my head, he said: ‘Have no fear, for you shall yet see Israel triumph in peace.’”
A final story illustrates Joseph’s capacity for quiet heroism. “One evening in the summer of 1837 two travelers drove into the little town of Painesville, in northern Ohio, and stopped at the house of a friend for supper. They had scarcely finished their meal when a disturbance arose without. A crowd had gathered and that its intent was hostile was soon shown by angry yells and threats of murder and the demand on the man of the house to bring out his guests. Instead of sacrificing his friends, however, he led them out through a back door, and aided them to get away in the darkness. As soon as the escape was discovered, riders were hurried along the road it was thought they would take, bonfires were lighted, sentinels placed and the country was scoured. The two men were prudent enough not to go on the highway, but taking to the woods and swamps they skirted the road, being guided somewhat by the bonfires. Only a short time had passed when one began to falter in his flight. Sickness and fright had robbed him of strength. His companion now had to decide whether to leave him to be captured by the bloodthirsty mob or still further to endanger himself by rendering aid. Choosing the latter course, he lifted the sick man upon his own broad shoulders and bore him with occasional rests, on through the swamp and darkness. Several hours later they emerged upon the lonely road and soon reached safety. The man whose devotion to his friend led him to undertake this task and whose herculean strength permitted him to accomplish it was Joseph Smith.”
Joseph Smith was a prophet, President of the Church, businessman, and politician. But his life also illustrated a prime goal of the restoration—turning the hearts of older people to children and the hearts of children and young people to their elders. Correct theological beliefs were an indispensable facet of the restoration, but only the uniting of families and of generations would provide the individual and collective spirituality that the restoration of the gospel demanded.
The anecdotes, stories, and quotations in this article are taken from the following sources: Joseph Smith Papers, Manuscript Section, Church Historian’s Library-Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah; Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet (Liverpool and London, 1853); “Recollections of Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Juvenile Instructor, vol. 27 (1892), seriatim; History of the Church (2 vols., Lamoni, Iowa, 1897); Joseph Smith, History of the Church … (6 vols., Salt Lake City, 1901); Lucy Walker Kimball, “Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent, vol. 39 (November 1900); “Incidents in the Life of Joseph the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 11 (April 1900); “Joseph Smith the Prophet, Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 16 (December 1905) and vol. 17 (December 1906); John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, an American Prophet (New York, 1933); and Edwin F. Parry, Stories About Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, 1936). I am grateful for the suggestions and help of LaMar C. Berrett, Dean Wengreen, and Ace S. Pilkington.