“Heritage of a Prophet,” Ensign, Feb. 1971, 15
Heritage of a Prophet
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s first known autobiographical sketch underlines the idea that his birth, in 1805, was “of goodly parents, who spared no pains to instruct me in the Christian religion.”1 In addition to goodly parents, he had rather remarkable grandparents. The year before his martyrdom, Joseph Smith spiritedly defended religious liberty for “any other denomination” and then became personal: “… love of liberty … was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.”2 A careful study of the Prophet’s youth begins with the ideals of these grandparents, demonstrably transmitted to their articulate grandson.
The Prophet’s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel Smith, gave considerable public service to his town and state legislature. He was characterized in his obituary as “a sincere friend to the liberties of his country, and a strenuous advocate for the doctrine of Christianity.”3 His son Asael furthered this patriotic tradition as a soldier in the American Revolution, though then a father with five children aged eight and under. An enterprising farmer, Grandfather Asael Smith was prominent for years in several communities of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. As a young man he was town clerk.4 At the height of his powers, he and his sons held large tracts of land in Tunbridge, Vermont (the region of the Prophet’s birth), where Asael was twice elected selectman, one of the three constituting the town managerial board. He was also elected moderator of the town meeting, highway surveyor, and grand juror, and appointed to investigative committees.5
The political and practical views of Asael at this time are revealed by a letter from Tunbridge, in which he recites an anecdote regarding the eleventh commandment, “mind your own business.”6
The Prophet’s recollection of the “love of liberty” generated by his grandfather is easily provable in its continuity, for Asael looked forward to the spread of liberty from the United States to the world under God’s providence: “He has conducted us through a glorious revolution and has brought us into the promised land of peace and liberty; and I believe that he is about to bring all the world in to the same beatitude in his own time and way. …”7 Political views here merge with religious ones, since Asael believed literally that the second chapter of Daniel would be fulfilled as “all the monarchial and ecclesiastical tyranny will be broken to pieces.”8 It is no wonder that on hearing of the Book of Mormon prior to his death in 1830, “he said it was true, for he knew that something would turn up in his family that would revolutionize the world.”9
Although Asael evidently participated in some worship in the Congregational Church in New England, he opposed the established theologies. As a young teenager, George A. Smith frequently conversed with his aged grandfather. He remembered him as “an exceedingly intelligent and cheerful old gentleman.” However, he was “too liberal in his views to please his children, who were Covenanters, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, with, I think, the single exception of his son Joseph [Sr.]. Not long before his death he wrote many quires of paper on the doctrine of Universal Restoration.”10
This recollection is precisely substantiated by the Tunbridge Town Record, which records the formation of a Universalist Society in 1797, three of whose members were Asael Smith, Jesse Smith (the eldest son), and Joseph Smith (the Prophet’s father). A collection of Christian dissenters, the Universalists held a faith that denied the orthodox doctrine of damnation and asserted to the contrary that God’s love was “universal,” with the consequent salvation of all. A convention agreed on the following typical tenet in 1803: “We believe there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”11 Asael Smith did not believe in a God who would condemn a portion of his children to eternal misery.
One may discuss Smith family traditions with little guesswork. Six years before the birth of the Prophet, Grandfather Asael carefully wrote down his specific philosophy and practical advice to his “dear wife and children,” addressing them in the quaint but affectionate phrase, “My Dear Selfs.” The priceless original of this document (now in the Church Historian’s Office) reveals the profound Christian piety of Asael, who displays the practical morality of a trustworthy man. Appropriately, it was published in 1902 by Asael’s great-great-grandson, then a young historian and now president of the Church.12
Asael’s testament of counsel to his survivors is more than anything else a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, faith both in his atonement for sin and in the power of the resurrection. It carries the appeal to become Christlike in love, honesty, and practical righteousness. This is not the stuff of which either imposters or fanatics are made:
“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; nor then, but when sound reason on serious consideration requires it.”13
The spirit of strict responsibility under God pervades almost his every sentence. He exposes false appearances of wealth and status and stresses the realities of family loyalty, generosity, practical charity, industry, patriotism, and gratitude to God. Do everything, Asael enjoins, “in a way that is fair and honest, which you can live and die by and rise and reign by. …”14 True religion for him consisted not of empty ceremonies, but of personal goodness; it should be tested by the “two witnesses” of “the scriptures” and “sound reason.” Such a heritage of commitment does not die easily. Grandfather Asael spoke to the parents in his family (one of whom was Joseph Smith, Sr.) regarding their duties to their own children: “Make it your chiefest work to bring them up in the ways of virtue, that they may be useful in their generation.”15
One can hardly doubt that in raising his children in “virtue,” Asael was materially supported by Mary Duty Smith, greeted in his 1799 address to the family as his “dearly beloved wife.” “With all the strength and power that is in me” Asael thanks her “for your kindness and faithfulness to me.”16 Mary Duty Smith was remarkably vital and affectionate at ninety-three, when she arrived at Kirtland to join four of her sons in their active faith in the calling of her prophet-grandson. Eliza R. Snow witnessed her “buoyancy of spirit” on that occasion.17
Idealism and tested integrity crop out like granite in the writings of Joseph Smith’s maternal grandfather. Somewhat different from Asael Smith in abilities and achievements, Solomon Mack nevertheless displayed a moral excellence that compared favorably with the Smith heritage. He spent a difficult and dangerous life as a frontier settler, soldier and sailor in two wars, merchant, trader, and farmer. Not until the end of his life did he feel a harmony with the Lord, when, broken in body and humbled in spirit, he wrote sincerely of personal revelation.
Solomon’s leading quality was not brilliance, but a dogged tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. The library cataloguer sees Solomon’s autobiography as the “career of an unlettered New Englander with his many unfortunate ups and downs.”18 An informed biographer will see the heroism of one determined not to give up in the face of unusual hardships. Bound out as an indentured servant because of unexpected impoverishment of his parents, Solomon was exploited as a child laborer without any benefit of religious or secular education. Leaving this bondage after majority, he plunged into the thick of danger in the French and Indian war. Modest but specific in his military narrative, Solomon described fatigue, disease, and human callousness. But two incidents (in the Lake George-Champlain sector) favorably highlight his character against war’s dark backdrop. In the business of hauling baggage with oxteams, he suddenly confronted a small party of Indian warriors. Unarmed, and accompanied by a single companion, Solomon saw “no other way to save myself, only to deceive them by strategem.” He called loudly to his companion and the nonexistent reinforcements behind him and charged headlong.
“I had no other weapon, only a staff. But I ran towards them, and the other man appearing in fight, gave them a terrible fright, and I saw them no more. But I am bound to say, the grass did not grow under my feet.”19 Such self-reliant bravery was also possessed by his prophet-grandson, who duplicated the episode in New York by scattering a menacing mob about his house, attacking with no other weapon but sheer nerve.
A second war episode reveals Solomon’s ability to sacrifice for others. Shortly after an unsuccessful and costly frontal assault on Ticonderoga, some colonials were sent on defensive patrol, only to be ambushed. Solomon Mack marched at the head with Israel Putnam’s company, which bore the brunt of the initial attack, in which Putnam was captured (though he miraculously survived). In Solomon’s words, “the enemy rose like a cloud and fired. … The tomahawks and bullets [were] flying around my ears like hail stones. …”20 This time survival depended upon immediate retreat and regrouping. Straining every power in flight, Solomon tarried to save another life at the risk of his own: “as I ran I looked [a] little one side, where I saw a man wounded (the Indians close to him), who immediately with my help got into the circle.”21 In the words of the eyewitness co-commander, Major Rogers, the “vigor and resolution” of the Americans broke this surprise attack,22 an achievement in bravery in which Solomon Mack shared.
Though crippled by accidents, Solomon served in the Revolution on land and sea, the latter duty on a privateer. War earnings and profits of civilian industry vanished in hard times and setbacks. Nor was his financial status helped by his generosity, which intensified his poverty through his becoming “bail for a number of people. …”23 He wrote his autobiography as an old man (when his grandson Joseph Smith was but six). Many accidents, sicknesses, and misfortunes had humbled the elderly and reflective Solomon to seek the Lord in prayer, and he wished to share the great faith that he had found. He bore testimony that he was both physically and spiritually healed. The simple story of his difficulties was told to show that God humbled him to teach him. Then “everything appeared new and beautiful. Oh, how I loved my neighbors; how I loved my enemies—I could pray for them. Everything appeared delightful; the love of Christ is beautiful.”24
As he looked over his life, Solomon Mack pleaded with parents to give their children the moral leadership that he was deprived of in his youth. “Parents, a little caution how to train up your children in the sight of the Lord. Never bid them to do anything that is out of their power, nor promise them only what you mean to fulfill. Set good examples in word, deed, and action.”25 Though he was late in his Christian education, Solomon Mack set an example of rigorous virtue all of his life, and produced a remarkable set of sons and daughters. In both his conversion and the education of his children he gave heartfelt credit to his wife, his “only instructor” in Bible understanding.26 In the isolation of a pioneer farm Lydia Gates Mack took the initiative to keep her children’s minds and spirits nourished:
“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 upon them the necessity of love towards each other, as well as devotional feelings towards Him who made them. In this manner my first children became confirmed in habits of piety, gentleness, and reflection, which afforded great assistance in guiding those who came after them, into the same happy channel.”27
Once the known convictions of Asael Smith, Solomon Mack, and their wives are identified, they become significant in understanding Joseph Smith in two ways. First, the Prophet’s parents obviously possessed characteristics formed in the Smith and Mack homes. Second, the Prophet had some direct contact with his grandfathers, who (as he said) taught him to value the freedom that they had fought for. Most significantly, however, their achievements and ideals were clearly respected and taught to the young Joseph Smith by his own parents. As for his grandmother Lydia Gates Mack, she had actually “lived with” Joseph Smith’s family “for some time” prior to their move to western New York in 1816. Both the Prophet and Lucy Mack Smith commented on her accompanying them at the beginning of their westward trek. The parting scene was the grandmother’s “last admonition” to Lucy Mack Smith “to continue faithful in the service of God to the end of your days, that I may have the pleasure of embracing you in another and fairer world above.”28 No informed biographer can deny the sustained exposure of the young Prophet to profound ideals and rational religious commitment. The intelligent sincerity of Joseph Smith’s grandparents goes a long way toward proving his own.