“The Joseph Knight Family,” Ensign, Oct. 1978, 39
Author’s original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.
The year 1830 was not a popular time to affiliate with the Mormons, but when the Knights put their names on the records of the Church, they were there as permanently as if they had been carved in granite. Their testimonies carried them through years of persecution and sacrifice. In the first generation of Knights in the Church, seven died, in some measure because of their commitment to the restored gospel. But theirs was a willing sacrifice, counted unto them for righteousness.
Joseph Knight, Sr., was born in Massachusetts in 1772 and came to Colesville, New York, via Vermont. He and his wife, Polly Peck, both had a namesake child among their seven. The oldest son was Nahum, then came Esther, Newel, Anna, Joseph, Jr., little Polly, and Elizabeth. The previous moves of the family denoted a seeking, not a restlessness, for once they found their farm site on the east side of the Susquehanna, opposite the growing village of Nineveh, they stayed for nineteen years—long enough to fill and enjoy their gray frame house, grow an apple orchard to maturity, build a barn, and profit from their thrifty management of both a grist and a carding mill.1 The carding mill’s raceways and dam trenches are still visible under the heavy brush near the outlet to Pickerel Pond.
Newel, the second son, described his father as “not rich yet [he] possessed enough of this worlds goods to secure to himself and family the necessaries and comforts of life.” The children were “raised in a genteel and respectable manner,” with a good “common school education.”2
They were believing people, but not churchgoers. Newel called his father “a believer in Universalian Doctrine,” which means he subscribed to a belief in universal salvation, that either eventually or immediately after death, everyone would enter a heavenly state, not remain permanently in hell.
More important than his beliefs was his character: he “was a sober, honest man, generally beloved and respected by his neighbors and acquaintances.”
It may have been these qualities in Joseph Knight that attracted the friendship of the young Prophet Joseph, who came in October 1825 to work for Josiah Stowell, Knight’s partner in the grain business. At that time, Joseph was almost twenty, comparatively close to the age of Joseph Knight, Jr., and, like Father Knight, sober and honest. Convinced that an old Spanish silver mine was hidden in the hills north of the Isaac Hale home in Harmony Township, Pennsylvania, Stowell hired the young prophet to find the mine. Joseph dug away for a month, but realistic about his lack of success, he “prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it.”3 He and his father, who had accompanied him, went back home to Manchester, New York, 125 miles away, but maintained business connections with the Stowell-Knight partnership, contracting their wheat to them. Joseph soon returned to Colesville and hired out to Stowell and then, in November 1826, to the Knights, to help relieve his family’s debts.
The Knight children liked Joseph Smith. The third son, Joseph Knight, Jr., said: “Joseph and I worked and slept together: my Father said Joseph was the best hand he ever hired, we found him a boy of truth, he was about 21 years of age. I think it was in November  he made known to my Father and I, that he had seen a vision, that a personage had appeared to him and told him where there was a gold book of ancient date buried, and if he would follow the directions of the Angel he could get it, we were told it in secret; I being the youngest son, my two elder brothers [Nahum and Newel] did not believe in such things; my Father and I believed what he told us.”4
Newel may not have had the instant faith of his younger brother, but he had the highest praise for Joseph Smith. He describes himself as “particularly attached” to the Prophet, and explains, “His noble deportment, his faithfulness his kind address could not fail to gain the esteem of those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance.”5
Kindness characterized the family’s treatment of the young Prophet as well. Brother Knight thoughtfully provided him “with a horse and cutter to go and see his girl Down to Mr. Hails [Hales]” twenty-six miles away.6 Joseph Knight’s partner, Josiah Stowell, was also helpful. It was while Emma was visiting in the Stowell home that she agreed to marry the Prophet despite her father’s opposition.
Both Knight and Stowell traveled to Manchester, arriving at the Smith home on 20 September 1827. The date was no coincidence—two days later Joseph received the plates from Moroni for the first time. It was in the Knight carriage that Joseph and Emma drove to the Hill Cumorah early in the morning of September 22. According to Joseph Knight, “In the morning I got up and my Horse and Carriage was gone. But after a while [Joseph Smith] Came home and he turned out the Horse. All Come into the house to Brackfirst. But no thing said about where they had Bin. After Brackfirst Joseph Caled me into the other Room and he set his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, ‘Well I am Dissopinted.’ ‘Well,’ say I, ‘I am sorrey.’ ‘Well,’ says he, ‘I am grateley Dissopinted; it is ten times Better then I expected.’ Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and said he they appear to be Gold. … Now they are writen in Caracters and I want them translated.”7
This simple paragraph, compelling in the sincerity of its awkwardness, tells us two things about their relationship. It’s quite clear that Joseph Knight believed in the young Prophet’s mission, since he had come to be at Manchester at the appointed time. It’s also clear that the young Prophet felt so close to Joseph Knight that, in his happiness at having received the plates, he could prolong his pleasure and increase the delight of Brother Knight by his little joke of being “Dissopinted.”
The venerable Brother Knight was also witness to an intimate occasion three years later when the Prophet baptized his father, Joseph Smith, Sr., on the same day the Church was organized. Brother Knight recounts:
“Old Mr. Smith and Martin Harris Came forrod [forward] to be Babtise[d] for the first. They found a place in a lot of small Stream ran thro and they ware Babtized in the Evening Because of persecution. They went forward and was Babtized Being the first I saw Babtised in the new and everlasting Covenant. I had some thots to go forrod, But I had not re[a]d the Book of Mormon and I wanted to oxeman [examine] a little more I Being a Restorationar and had not oxamined so much as I wanted to. But I should a felt Better,” he adds candidly, “if I had a gone forward. …”
Then he describes, “Joseph was fild with the Spirrit to a grate Degree to see his Father and Mr. Harris that he had Bin with so much he Bast [burst?] out with greaf and Joy and seamed as tho the world Could not hold him. He went out into the Lot and appeared to want to git out of site of every Body and would sob and Crie and seamed to be so full that he could not live. Oliver and I went after him and Came to him and after a while he Came in. But he was the most wrot upon that I ever saw any man. But his joy seemed to Be full. I think he saw the grate work he had Begun and was Desirus to Carry it out.”8
What a valuable insight this record gives us of the Prophet’s joy, so great that it manifested itself as weeping! This experience also tells us that Joseph Knight, who had proved himself a friend and a defender many times over, was not the kind of man to let friendship for the Prophet or anger at persecution sway him into a decision until he had fully examined all of the evidence—in this case, the Book of Mormon. This kind of clear-headed thinking and carefulness is all the more impressive since he had already had numerous experiences with the Book of Mormon.
For example, only two days after Joseph Smith had received the plates, Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell had helped search for three ruffians who had attacked the Prophet when he was retrieving the plates from a hiding place in the woods?9
On several other occasions, Brother Knight had willingly given so the work of translation could continue uninterrupted. Since the Prophet poured all of his efforts into translation during the summer of 1828, his family, at times, suffered financially. Joseph Knight recorded two of these incidents as follows: “He and his wife Came up to see me the first of the winter 1828 and told me his Case. … I let him have some little provisions and some few things out of the Store a pair of Shoes and three Dollars in money to help him a little.” Some months later, in January 1829, Joseph Knight personally went to Harmony by sleigh to give Joseph Smith some money for translation. In March his wife, Polly, went with him on another relief mission, and this time they received far more than they gave: “Joseph talked with us about his translating and some revelations he had Received and from that time my wife Began to Beleve and Continued a full Believer untill She Died.”10
In April, the Knights gave Joseph Smith a barrel of mackerel, nine or ten bushels of grain, five or six bushels of potatoes, and some lined paper for writing.11 The Prophet Joseph gratefully said that their assistance “enabled us to continue the work when otherwise we must have relinquished it for a season.”12
Joseph Knight’s own faith must have been growing, for on a visit, apparently in May 1829, he asked the Prophet Joseph for reassurance. What is now Section 12 of the Doctrine and Covenants was given, promising that “a great and marvelous work is about to come forth,” counseling Brother Knight to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion,” and advising him and all who had similar desires to be “humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity, being temperate in all things.” (D&C 12:1, 6–8)
The sacrifices continued. Joseph Knight, Jr., had purchased a lot and was just starting to build his own home when the Prophet asked Joseph Knight, Sr., for fifty dollars, a sum that the good man could not raise at that moment. Then the Prophet turned to the younger Knight. With a humble restraint that lets us read much between the lines, Joseph Knight, Jr., records simply: “The same day, I sold my house lot.”13
Interest in the restoration of the gospel was high in the Knights’ hometown. According to David Whitmer, “about 20 from Colesville [were] at the Peter Whitmer Sr., home on the day of organization.”14 Therefore, during April 1830 (the same month the Church was organized), Joseph Smith made a special missionary journey to Colesville to preach the gospel.
Newel Knight attended his series of meetings regularly, and on one occasion was attacked by an evil spirit which the Prophet commanded to leave. In the aftermath of that experience, Newel was so filled with the Spirit that he saw “the visions of heaven” and was bodily lifted from the floor, a miracle that “contributed much to make believers of those who witnessed it, and finally the greater part of them became members of the Church.”15
The Prophet performed no baptisms at that time, but young Newel went to the Peter Whitmer farm in Seneca County in May where he was baptized by David Whitmer, the first in his family and apparently the first of the Colesville Saints to join the Church. Soon after the first Church conference, held 9 June 1830 at the Whitmer farm, the Prophet Joseph, Emma, Oliver Cowdery, and John and David Whitmer returned to Colesville and “found a number in the neighborhood … anxious to be baptized.” Joseph Knight had made his examination of the Book of Mormon and was satisfied. He was one of those “anxious” to join the Church. On Saturday, June 26, they dammed a stream to make a pond. A mob demolished it in the night, but the brethren repaired it the next day. Early Monday morning, Oliver Cowdery baptized Joseph Knight, his wife Polly, his son Joseph, and Newel’s wife Sally Coburn, along with Emma Smith and several other people.16
Mocking neighbors jeered, asking if they “had been washing sheep,” and before the Prophet had time to confirm the new converts, he was arrested and taken to South Bainbridge in Chenango County for trial for being a disorderly person. Not satisfied merely with an arrest, the mob returned to the Knights’ that evening, and according to Joseph Knight, Jr., “our wagons were turned over and wood piled on them, and some sunk in the water, rails were piled against our doors, and chains sunk in the stream and a great deal of mischief done.”17 Back in the Chenango County, Joseph Knight’s lawyers cleared the Prophet. Joseph was released, rearrested, retried in Broome County, and cleared again. Both Josiah Stowell and Newel Knight testified at those trials, and finally, on 29 August, Joseph returned to Colesville and confirmed the patient converts members of the Church. (Newel and Sally had visited Joseph Smith in Harmony early in August, and Sally, along with Emma Smith, had been confirmed at that time.)
The Prophet’s return to Colesville involved a miracle. Public feeling had not abated, so when Joseph and Hyrum Smith and John and David Whitmer began their journey, “they called upon their heavenly Father in mighty prayer … that he would blind the eyes of their enemies. Their prayers were not in vain,” testifies Newel. “A little distance before reaching my place they encountered a large Company of men at work upon the public road, amongst whom were some of our most bitter enemies, [who] looked earnestly at [the brethren] but not knowing them, [the brethren] passed on unmolested.”
The confirmations that followed and the first partaking of the sacrament together was an interlude of quiet joy between troubles. Newel says simply, “[We] had a happy meeting haveing much reason to rejoice in the God of our salvation and sing hosanna to his holy name.”18
The mob’s relentless persecution of the Knight family persisted until Father Knight, his wife, and their daughter Elizabeth fled their home by night and, in January-February 1831, accompanied the Prophet Joseph to Kirtland.19 Newel and his brother Joseph, Jr., remained behind, helping the rest of the Colesville Branch prepare to travel the moment the spring thaw opened the waterways. By mid-April, Colesville Saints had grouped at Ithaca, a port on Cayuga Lake, but on the way, Newel’s aunt, Electa Peck, had broken her shoulder “in the most shocking manner.” A doctor observed that if she could travel before “many weeks it will be a miracle.” Believing in miracles, Sister Peck sent for her nephew as soon as he arrived in camp. He stepped “up to the bed and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ rebuked the pain with which she was suffering and commanded her to be made whole; and it was done, for the next morning she arose, dressed her self, and pursued the journey with us.”20
From Ithaca, the Saints could travel by boat all the way to Ohio through a system of lakes and canals which included the Erie Canal. They arrived in Buffalo on 1 May 1831 where they waited impatiently for two weeks, stalled by a cold wind that filled the harbor with ice.21 Young Joseph Knight and a small group led by Jared Carter walked overland to Dunkirk, New York, and took a steamboat from there to Kirtland.
The rest of the stranded Saints joined them there after the delay, and, being advised to “remain together,” went to a location in Thompson, a neighboring township sixteen miles northeast where they organized initially under the law of consecration. They had to abandon that stewardship, however, when their host, Leman Copley, “was turned out of the church for bad conduct,” demanded they leave his property, and required them to pay sixty dollars for the “damage” they had caused. Joseph Knight, Jr., indicates that the “damage” they had done was, ironically, “fitting up his houses and planting his ground.”22
This first move westward was prophetic of the next few years. The branch of early believers struggled to stay together for the love and support they gave each other. So did the Knight family. But the circumstances of travel and weight of persecution did not allow them peace and union. Until the arrival in Utah, the history of that little branch, of the Knight family, and particularly of Newel Knight mirrors faithfully the history of the Church.
The next move came almost at once when a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph to Newel Knight sent them “westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites.” (D&C 54:8) They arrived in Independence on 25 July 1831 and helped the Prophet “lay the first log as a foundation for Zion in Kaw township, twelve miles west of Independence,” on 2 August 1831. Newel notes that the first log “was carried by twelve men in honor of the twelve tribes of Israel.” At least five of those twelve were Colesville Saints and members of the Knight family: Joseph Knight, Sr., Aaron Culver, Hezekiah Peck, Ezekial Peck, and Freeborn DeMill. Newel Knight stood with a small group clustered around the Prophet the next day when he dedicated the temple site in Independence.23
Mother Knight had been seriously ill on her journey to Jackson County, but refused to give in to her sickness, even though Newel, deeply concerned, bought lumber to have on hand for her coffin while they travelled. But “her greatest desire,” he says, “was to set her feet upon the land of Zion and to have her body intered in that land. … The Lord gave her the desire of her heart.”24
She was the first Latter-day Saint to die in Missouri, and the Prophet preached her funeral sermon on August 7. Father Knight’s record contains a poignant notation: “She was Burried in the woods a Spot Chosen out By our selves. I was along By where she was Buried a few Days after and I found the hogs had Began to root where She was Buried. I Being verry unwell But I took my ax the next Day and went and Bilt a pen round it. It was the Last I done for her.”25
She was the first to die but not the last. Her daughter Esther soon followed her, then their uncle Aaron Culver, leaving his wife, Esther, in Newel’s care. Newel’s record shows no complaint. He simply says that the frontier life was “new and strange … yet we took hold with cheerful hearts, and a determination to do our best.” Conferences with the Prophet Joseph left them feeling “renewed in spirit.”
As president of the Colesville Branch, Newell observed that “meetings were well attended, the hearts of the Saints were united, and peace and happiness abounded.”26 When persecutions began in Independence, he fearlessly walked through a mob to administer to his friend, Philo Dibble, who had been shot in the abdomen and was not expected to live. As soon as Newel placed his hand on Brother Dibble’s head, the wounded man “felt the spirit of the Lord rest upon him and pass gently through his body and before it pass all pain and soreness so that he felt perfectly easy in a few minutes.”27 A surgeon, a veteran of the Mohawk war, told Brother Dibble that he had never known anyone to survive a similar wound.
During the winter of 1833, the Jackson County Saints took refuge in Clay County. Newel was forced to abandon his grist mill that “was doing business for the people generally” but which he had still had to guard night and day to keep the mobbers from burning. Again the Colesville Saints clung together, built some temporary houses on the Missouri bottoms, and settled in grimly for the winter.
The time for optimism was surely past, but Newel, after reporting the suffering and persecution, notes, “the Saints did not forget to return thanks unto Almighty God for deliverance … and to seek His protecting care for the future.” That winter was a bitter one. Many lacked “the necessaries of life, but we were not forgotten by God nor by our co-religionists in Kirtland, and the sympathies of the Saints were like balm to our wounds.”28
Spring—the chance to put in farms and become self-sufficient—came, but so did seasonal sickness. Newel’s new-born son died, and then, crushingly, his wife, Sally, on 15 September 1834. He recorded: “Truely she died a martyr to the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. She was of a frail constitution, and the hardships and privations she had to endure were more than she could survive.”
Ill himself and trying to care for his aged Aunt Esther and one surviving child, a little son named Samuel, Newel heard the Prophet’s call for labor on the Kirtland Temple. “Hardly able to walk,” he set out with others on the 900 mile journey. By the time he arrived, he was feeling so much better, he was “preaching the gospel to those who would listen.”29
While working on the temple, he boarded with the Hyrum Smith family and there met and married Lydia Godthwait Bailey, a young convert whose husband had deserted her several years earlier. The Prophet himself officiated at the wedding ceremony in Hyrum’s parlor, the first wedding he had performed. After the temple was dedicated, the young couple returned to Clay County, arriving 6 May 1836. The era of peace was over; the Missourians were insisting that all the Mormons leave. But literally impoverished by his illness and his uncompensated labor on the temple, Newel had to remain, bearing the threats and witnessing the persecutions of the Saints. Another personal loss soon followed—the death of his Aunt Esther.
Finally he accumulated enough capital to follow the body of the Saints to Caldwell County where forty acres of government land were purchased near Far West. Again mobs assembled. The Prophet was seized and the city sacked. In February 1839 Newel left Missouri for Nauvoo in the wake of Governor Boggs’s infamous “extermination order.” But again death visited their family and Newel’s sister Polly died on 27 April 1844 at the age of 33. Two months later, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered, and soon the Saints were on the move again.
Newel, reflecting later on his Nauvoo experience, remembers that “sometimes I was without the necessaries of life, being bereft of the food and clothing which my family needed; sometimes I was surrounded by not only the necessaries but also the comforts of life; sometimes I rejoiced in the society of my friends, and sometimes enemies surrounded me, seeking my destruction because of my religion. But in the midst of these varied circumstances I never felt to doubt the truth of the gospel or the divinity of Joseph Smith’s mission.”30
How could he be so sure? What was his protection against doubt and discouragement as sorrow struck at that dwindling little family again and again? How could he continue so steadfastly to make whatever sacrifices were required of him?
At least part of the answer must lie in one experience he had in those early days of his conversion, an experience that must have sunk to bedrock and enable him to hold on through the storms. At the first conference of the Church in June 1830, he describes the inspiring truths of the gospel that were preached and the great gifts of the Spirit that were manifest, then records his own feelings: “I felt my heart filled with love, with glory, and with pleasure unspeakable. I could discern all that was going on in the room and a vision of futurity also suddenly burst upon me, and I saw, represented, the great work, which, through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith, was to be accomplished. I saw the heavens opened, I beheld the Lord Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High, and it was made plain to my understanding that the time would come when I should be admitted into His presence, to enjoy His society for ever and ever.”31
Certainly this sure knowledge of the future had something to do with his patience and steadfastness during trial. Another sustaining influence must have been the unstinted love of the Prophet Joseph for that little family. Before his death, the Prophet Joseph had praised the Knight family for standing “by me in every hour of peril, for these fifteen long years past.” Of Father Knight, the Prophet wrote:
“[He] was among the number of the first to administer to my necessities. … For fifteen years he has been faithful and true, and even-handed and exemplary, and virtuous and kind, never deviating from the right hand or to the left. Behold, he is a righteous man, may God Almighty lengthen out the old man’s days; and may his trembling, tortured, and broken body be renewed, … and it shall be said of him, by the sons of Zion, while there is one of them remaining, that this man was a faithful man in Israel.”
To Father Knight’s sons, the Prophet Joseph paid a simple and moving tribute: “There are his sons, Newel Knight and Joseph Knight, Jun., whose names I record in the Book of the Law of the Lord with unspeakable delight, for they are my friends.”32
Their faith unshaken by the death of the Prophet, the Knights once more joined the exiled Saints in their exodus from Nauvoo. Like so many times before, they “left mills, house, barn and all their possessions” to be occupied by another. Newel, Lydia, and their seven children pushed on to Council Bluffs, and with an advanced company, built a fort on the Niobrara River in Ponca country, in what would later be known as Nebraska. When a fire threatened the fort, Newel was among those who combatted the danger. The exertion was too much, however, and he contracted what was probably pneumonia. As he lay dying, he whispered, “Lydia, it is necessary for me to go. Joseph wants me.”33 On 11 January 1847, he rejoined his beloved friend on the other side of the veil. Less than a month later, his father, Joseph Knight, Sr., died in the Mormon community established at Mount Pisgah, Iowa.
The Knight family repeatedly bore testimony of their faithfulness with their lives. Some laid them down; others wore them out in the Lord’s service. Lydia and her children came west a few years later when they were sufficiently equipped for the journey. One of those children, Jesse Knight, who knew nothing but hardships and privation in his youth, progressed from a condition of wearing coarse homespun cloth and gathering pigweed and sego roots for the family’s meager food supply to a prominent position of wealth and stature in the business world.
Purged of his indifference to things of the Spirit by the death of one of his daughters and by the Lord’s divine intervention on behalf of another, Jesse determined to become useful to the Lord. He made a liberal estimate of his back tithing and paid it. He successfully built up enterprises—ranches, mining companies, a woolen mill, sugar companies, irrigation, and banks—which contributed to the success of growing communities in the intermountain West and Canada. He loaned substantial sums of money to the Church and to individual members at critical times. And both he and members of his family gave substantial endowments to the struggling Brigham Young University.
Jesse Knight expressed to his children “that any money we should get should be used wisely,” for he believed that the Lord was blessing them financially “for the purpose of doing good and building up the Church.” At his death on 14 March 1921, Alice Louise Reynolds, lifelong friend and associate of the Knights, eulogized: “His vision was of big things; and his actions harmonized with his vision.”34
Newel and Lydia Knight’s eldest son, James Philander Knight, and his wife, Elizabeth Jones, have a numerous posterity in the Church. One line of that family, through their eldest daughter, Elizabeth Knight, is an example of the continued faithfulness and service of the Knight family in the present. Ethel, daughter of Elizabeth Knight and Lee Simons, married David Branson Brinton II. The couple had three sons and two daughters: David Branson Brinton III, Sherman Simons, Marshall Knight, Barbara, and Eleanor. Of these five children, the three sons and Barbara served full-time missions. All three sons have served as bishops and two of them have been on high councils. Prior to her death, Barbara served in an MIA presidency. Eleanor has served as a branch, district, and stake Relief Society president. Sixteen members of the next generation have filled full-time missions. (This constitutes one hundred percent of the sons except for the two who are waiting to come of age for missionary service.) Similarly, one hundred percent of those married have been married in the temple. All of the grandchildren are being raised in active families and are participating in the Church programs for their respective ages.35
Despite the heavy mortality rate which afflicted the early Knight family, the posterity of those ardent forebearers currently numbers in the thousands and continues faithful in the tradition of their progenitors. The extended family of Joseph Knight, Sr., is one of the exceptional examples of devotion which spans this entire dispensation—from 1830 to 1978.