“Permanent Missionaries,” Ensign, Aug. 1975, 12
“We are the two oldest surviving descendants of Samuel H. Smith, the first Mormon missionary.” That’s the way J. Winter Smith introduces himself and his brother, David. “He’s my kid brother. If he ever grows up he’ll be quite a man. I have a baby sister, too.”
But David sets the record straight, “He’s 94 and I’m 90.”
They are the grandsons of Samuel H. Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph, and living examples of the spirit that propelled their grandfather into missionary work, bringing Brigham Young and many other early leaders into the Church.
“Missionary work comes naturally in our family, our grandfather being the first missionary,” says David. “Father went on three different fulltime missions. I’ve been on two. My son’s been on a mission, my granddaughter’s been on one, and my third grandson is now in England on a mission.”
The story of this missionary family is very much entwined with early Church history. J. Winter and David’s grandfather Samuel was just 12 years old when his brother Joseph told the family of the first vision. Never doubting Joseph, Samuel obtained a testimony through prayer and was the first, after Joseph and Oliver Cowdery, to be baptized. Later, he was one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon and at age 25 was one of the six men present at the organization of the Church. Shortly thereafter he began to spread the gospel through missionary journeys. It was on a mission to New England with Orson Hyde that he met and baptized Mary Bailey and her friend, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, in 1832. Two years later, after Mary and Agnes had joined the Saints in Kirtland, Samuel and Mary were married. Within the next year, Agnes married Samuel’s brother, Don Carlos. (Their daughter, Josephine Donna Smith Coolbrith, became the first poet laureate of California in 1915, known by her pseudonym, Ina Coolbrith.)
Samuel H. and Mary’s son, Samuel H.B., was born during a time of extreme persecution while the family lived in a place called Marrowbone in Daviess County, Missouri. He was just four days old when the mob forced his mother and her three children out into the rain and burned down their house. They had been out in the storm for 36 hours when his father returned and took them to Far West.
This son, Samuel H.B., was J. Winter and David’s father. He was not quite six years old at the time of the martyrdom. David relates: “I remember that my father used to say he could remember when his father came in excitedly and said he had to go in a hurry. He was on his way to Carthage and Father said he watched him go down the lane on his horse as fast as he could go.” On the way to Carthage to assist his brothers, Samuel H. was waylaid by the mob, which intended to get rid of the entire Smith family in its effort to suppress Mormonism. They shot at him, one bullet going through his hat and another through his sleeve, but neither hitting him. Despite this miraculous preservation, he died just a few weeks after the martyrdom from internal injuries first suffered in a farm accident but severely aggravated during his escape from the mob.
Actually, his death fulfilled a dream the Prophet Joseph reportedly had shortly before the martyrdom. David recalls, “I remember when I was quite young Father said that the last dream the Prophet had before he died was that he was going in a boat and they were just pushing out from shore, he and Hyrum. And Samuel came and called to them to wait for him. And so they waited for him to get on.”
Young Samuel H.B.’s mother, Mary Bailey Smith, had died early in 1841 following the birth of her third daughter, so his father’s death left him an orphan. He was passed from relative to relative, finally joining Brigham Young’s second company in 1848, and arriving in the Salt Lake Valley late that September at age nine.
He was called on his first mission at 17, and was sent back to the district that included Nauvoo and Carthage. There he had a chance to visit his cousins and found the Prophet Joseph’s three sisters, Sophronia, Catherine, and Lucy, active in their branch.
“Everybody thinks that the ones that didn’t come with Brigham Young were apostates. This is not true at all,” says J. Winter. “Father found out when he went back there that these people continued in our faith the same as it was. They were a small branch of the Central States Mission.”
Like their father, the Smith brothers have had some contact with their cousins in the Reorganized Church. In the summers of 1972 and 1973 they attended family reunions at Nauvoo, Illinois, and Independence, Missouri. David says it was the first time the two families—the ones from the Reorganized Church and those who went on to Salt Lake—had been together in 125 years.
Samuel H.B.’s second wife, Julia Winter, was the mother of J. Winter and David Smith and ten other children as well. Only six grew to maturity and the two brothers and their sister, Susannah B. Beatie, are the only ones still living. However, according to J. Winter, “The descendants of our father are now nearly 300.”
David tells an interesting story of their childhood. “Mother was a second wife and when the persecutions against the polygamists began, she went ‘underground.’ If I get the story right, my birth was the thing that set the deputies making a special search for her. We went to many different places, staying a few weeks or months; and when we thought the deputies were getting close, we’d move on. We moved so often that as a boy I would hang onto my cap and when we got to a new place I’d want to go back where I came from. Then I’d get adjusted to that place and pretty soon we’d move again. To this day, I want to go back home no matter where I am. That went on until I was seven, when we finally moved back to our home in Salt Lake City.
“Because of the constant moving, I didn’t get into school until I was eight and I quit after the eighth grade because of illness.” With the depression of 1893 David got a job instead of returning to school, earning $10 a month. Later, J. Winter was working his way through Stanford University when David decided he should go back to school too, and returned after a seven-year absence. He went to high school for two years and was then called on a mission. J. Winter loaned him the money, on a monthly basis, so he could go. He returned in 1912 and completed the rest of high school and college in three years.
Now a widower for five years, David is priesthood representative for the Special Interest group in the Holladay Utah 14th Ward. He meets each Monday night for home evening with other older members who have lost their companions. “One of the sisters hadn’t been in Church for years,” he relates. “But because she’s a widow, she came to our home evenings and liked them. Then one of the other widows got pretty well acquainted with her so they’ve been going to Relief Society together. And last night she said, ‘One of my friends asked me why I have to go to that meeting every Monday night, and I told her that I just have a feeling of peace here.’”
J. Winter filled a mission to Germany and has financially supported others (besides David) while they served. He considers himself an especially “permanent” missionary because of the way he was released. “At the end of my mission, Thomas E. McKay was my conference president,” he says. “He called me in to Frankfurt for some special occasion and I was still there when my release came. He was about to hand it to me, and I said, ‘Can I ask you a special favor? May I accept that not as a release but as a transfer to a larger field of labor—the world? And for a longer time—for life?’ He replied, ‘Elder Smith, the Lord heard you say that and he’s going to hold you to it.’”
And so in his many travels and throughout his life J. Winter has tried to fellowship and bring others into the Church. “I’ve moved to places where there were no members,” he says. “I’d find out where the nearest branch was and I’d get in touch with them and see if we couldn’t get missionaries to come out that way. I’d find a stray Mormon family that had ‘got lost in the woods,’ and I’d hunt until I found another like them. Then I’d put the two together and start a Sunday School. It’s the greatest chance for missionary work in all the world!”
J. Winter has long been known to students at Brigham Young University as “Uncle J.” for the many scholarships he has donated there. Once a student becomes a member of his “family,” receiving a scholarship, he also receives a dollar for each year of his age on his birthday, 20 dollars for Christmas and 20 dollars for graduation and 20 dollars as a wedding gift. J. Winter also takes the opportunity to get to know each of them personally.
He has home evening every week at his home for college students and has published a book of inspirational thoughts called Wisdograms. He has been a patriarch in the Church for 22 years.
The brothers have a favorite story about their Aunt Mary that illustrates the spirit of their heritage. “Aunt Mary was older than father,” says J. Winter, “and she came to live with us for a few months when she was about 70 years old. Then she went up to Idaho and homesteaded 160 acres—at the age of 70—and proved up on them. That’s the kind of Smith she was.”
Considering their activity while in their nineties, J. Winter and David fit right in the family.