“Joseph Smith’s Brothers: Nauvoo and After,” Ensign, Sept. 1979, 30
The story of the brothers of Joseph Smith is at once tragic and instructive. Five Smith brothers—Hyrum, Joseph, Samuel, William, and Don Carlos—migrated to Illinois with the exiled Saints, but only one survived to see the western exodus. And that one survivor, William, had become so alienated from the Church that he never did go west.
The Smith family came piecemeal out of Missouri, while Joseph and Hyrum waited in Liberty Jail. Samuel had fled Missouri with a small group of stalwarts to avoid militia retaliation for his part in the Crooked River Battle. William was first to leave Missouri with a family, settling fifty miles away from the Nauvoo area and sending his team back to his parents. Don Carlos helped to lead the largest group—parents and families of two sisters—who barely survived late winter storms and found temporary haven in Quincy.1
Powerful and promising Don Carlos did not survive his second year in Illinois. His spirituality speaks through a letter sent during the malaria of Nauvoo’s first settlement. He and his cousin George A. Smith had just blessed sixteen of the sick: “Some notable miracles were wrought under our hands. … For this let God be glorified.”2 He was Joseph’s youngest brother, but had earned the confidence of his leaders in missionary service and was president of the high priests at Kirtland and at Nauvoo (see History of the Church, 2:370),
Don Carlos’s obituary emphasized his “kind and gentle” disposition,3 the same quality that his mother called “affectionate,” insisting that his “every word” to his family was stamped with it.4 Letters to his New England wife, whom he married in Kirtland, bear this out, one mentioning “ties that are stronger than death, and time cannot sever them.”5 With a personality much like Joseph’s, Don Carlos was popular enough to be elected Nauvoo city councilman and brigadier general in the Nauvoo Legion. His imposing appearance dignified the office; his cousin approved this description: “He was six feet four inches high, was very straight and well made, had light hair, and was very strong and active.”6
Don Carlos had apprenticed in Oliver Cowdery’s Kirtland printing office, and at Nauvoo he effectively contributed as editor of the Times and Seasons for nearly a year. There he stated his clear commitment to the restored gospel. “While the world is flooded with literary and religious trash,” he reasoned, it is essential that the Saints sponsor “a periodical devoted to the cause of Truth.”7
In August 1841, at the age of only twenty-five, Don Carlos died from a respiratory disease with pneumonia-like symptoms. He was buried with military honors, described at the time by Eliza R. Snow in a narrative poem. She contrasted the muffled “martial music” of the legion band, “with solemn, slow and mournful air,” to the day when the “trump of God” would call forth the body to rejoin “its own bright spirit from the skies!”8
Hyrum’s significance in Nauvoo history is well known. After Alvin died, Hyrum was Joseph’s only older brother. He was totally converted to Joseph’s mission and inspired leadership, witnessed by a letter to the Prophet, who had been in Washington, D.C., for several months lobbying for his people’s rights: “I want a letter from you, Brother Joseph, as soon as possible, giving me all the instructions you think necessary. I feel the burden in your absence is great.”9
Hyrum had functioned as a counselor to Joseph in Kirtland and Missouri, but in Nauvoo he was appointed to preside with Joseph on a higher level than the counselors in the First Presidency (see D&C 124:94–96) and also named “by right” as presiding patriarch in place of his father (see D&C 124:91–93). Hyrum’s calling also named him “Assistant President of the Church.” This authorizing revelation also honored Hyrum with an approval unexcelled in almost any other scripture: “I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me” (D&C 124:15).
This evaluation of Hyrum applies both to moral choices and growth. As new doctrines came to Joseph at Nauvoo, Hyrum accepted these teachings one by one. For instance, the revelation appointing Hyrum patriarch also emphasizes the new duty of baptism for the dead (see D&C 124:28–33); and Nauvoo records indicate that he as the oldest surviving brother was baptized on behalf of Alvin, the oldest brother, who had died almost two decades earlier.10
Hyrum and Joseph had been chained together once in Missouri, a prelude to their martyrdom at Carthage. Two years before their blood sealed their missions, Joseph exclaimed of this brother: “O how many are the sorrows we have shared together.”11 Both had held the Book of Mormon plates; both had labored in the Church from the beginning. Hyrum’s retrospect on his Missouri trials applies equally to their martyrdom: “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast.”12
Samuel was also a Book of Mormon witness, and he solidified his words by a testament of deeds. One convert remembered that Samuel simply told how he saw and handled the plates: “His speech was more like a narrative than a sermon.”13
But Samuel’s backwardness was his strength. Although he served faithfully on the Kirtland high council and held Nauvoo offices, he was not noted for eloquence. But his credibility is strong because he could not exaggerate either his importance or his experiences. His father blessed him and promised: “The testimony which thou hast borne and shall bear, shall be received by thousands.”14
Nothing takes us more into Samuel’s mind than the 1832 journal of his New England mission with Orson Hyde. He never rose above feeling guilty for allowing the more verbal Hyde to take the lead. What he doubted was his own effectiveness at communication: “But never at any time did I doubt the work, for how could I doubt any thing that I knew to be true?”15 Among the converts of the first few days at Boston was Mary Bailey, whom he married at Kirtland two years later. Another Boston convert was Agnes Coolbrith, who would marry Samuel’s brother Don Carlos after gathering to Kirtland.16
Samuel wrestled to turn wild lands into farms much of his life, finally settling in western Hancock County near his brother William, who lived in Plymouth. Cousin George A. Smith later recalled that he “possessed great strength and wonderful powers of endurance, very exemplary in all his habits.”17 Samuel’s daughter was seven when he died. She later recalled his uninhibited evening romps with his children. The game was to race once around the room and then into his lap, with father’s kiss as the reward for being first—and it was played long enough for each of three children to win affection and exhaustion.18
June 27, 1844, was as fateful for Samuel as for his murdered brothers. Living several miles southeast of Carthage, he heard of danger and rode to help. Men apparently alerted to his identity shot at him, but horse and horsemanship put pursuers behind—John Taylor said that Samuel was the first Mormon to reach Carthage after the martyrdom.19 Then Samuel had the grim duty of guarding the bodies back to Nauvoo. But Samuel’s own body had been critically affected by the ride to Carthage. Unable even to sit up as strength faded, he told his mother that he had suffered “a dreadful distress in my side ever since I was chased by the mob, and I think I have received some injury which is going to make me sick.”20 Perhaps he was internally torn from body bruises in riding low over the saddle horn. Whatever the diagnosis, Samuel died a month later, also a casualty of the martyrdom.
Only one brother survived the summer of 1844. William was then in the east, where Church work and his wife’s severe health had kept him. He had ably represented Hancock County in the Illinois legislature for a term ending in 1843. He had been an apostle since the first calling in Kirtland, but Missouri persecutions aroused deep resentments in him toward Joseph’s policies and contributed to William’s inactivity in the earliest Nauvoo period. William was conspicuously absent when the rest of the Twelve made dramatic sacrifices to travel to England to establish the Church there. He publicly explained:
“Many have thought my course of conduct strange,” but he ignored the mission call, “not because I have any doubts respecting the work of the last days,” but because of “poverty,” though “I have a prospect of soon being in a situation to leave my family, and go and assist my brethren.”21 One of the Twelve later commented that William “was better situated to leave his family” than those who obeyed their call.22
William was one of the more articulate Smiths, but at his worst he was abrasive. He edited the secular paper of Nauvoo, which carried acrid political attacks that contributed to anti-Mormon prejudice. His weekly Wasp, which began in 1842, was transformed into the Nauvoo Neighbor sometime after his resignation. At this time William had been elected to a term in the Illinois legislature, where he used his combative talents effectively in defense of the Nauvoo charters. A newspaper then noticed his “powerful speech in defense of his brethren, in the course of which he gave Mr. Davis of Bond county a very severe castigation.”23
William remembered the stormy time of his brother’s early revelations: “I got into a great many quarrels and contentions with the young men of the neighborhood … , but invariably came off victorious.”24 But William did not put aggressive methods aside as an adult, for he verbally and physically attacked his brother Joseph at Kirtland after being called as an apostle. The blessing of his patriarch father at this period commended William up to a point for his early contentions for the faith, but cautioned, “Verily, this was a good desire, but thou hast not altogether desired this thing in meekness, because thou hast not always known the Lord.”25
Here is William’s tragic flaw that plays against many years of sacrifice and missionary labor for the church. The year of crisis in William’s church career was 1845. He made a four-month visit to Nauvoo, during which he was ordained Patriarch to the Church by the Twelve. The year began with William’s public expressions of harmony with church leaders and ended with his private letters filled with incredible name-calling.
After his wife, Caroline Grant Smith, died after suffering years with dropsy, William entered successive stages of personal rebellion: private criticisms of the Twelve; attempts to force them to grant him special authority in the Church; public statements of opposition when rebuffed. At the October 1845 conference, the Twelve were sustained unanimously “as the Presidents of the whole church,” and then presented individually. Elder Parley P. Pratt objected to William Smith on grounds of his personal conduct and because “he aspires to uproot and undermine the legal Presidency of the church, that he may occupy the place himself.” The vote to sustain Elder Smith was called for “but was lost unanimously.”26 At the same conference the motion to sustain him as Church Patriarch also failed. A week later, further writings of William were considered, and he was excommunicated from the Church.27
In the next decades William spun through contradictory religious positions, periodically expressing contrition and loyalty to President Young. He spent a year supporting James J. Strang, leader of an apostate group (see “Nineteenth Century Break-offs,” this issue) as the proper leader. Then in the fall of 1847 he issued a broadside claiming no authority for the Twelve and titling himself “Pres. Ch. of Jesus Christ of Lat. D. Sts.”28 Yet the previous summer he had written Orson Hyde regarding his restoration to the Church, requesting forgiveness from Brigham Young: “I have said many hard things concerning him, and yet I know him to be a man of God.”29
The above conduct makes no sense except as reflecting William’s unsuccessful quest to be cared for by the Church. Brigham Young judiciously ignored repeated feelers over many years, tacitly inviting William to prove his beliefs by his actions. At times his professions were convincing. Horace Eldredge noted William’s 1854 visit in St. Louis: “He looked poor … and dejected. I spent some time with him in conversation and [he] seemed quite humble and manifested a desire to go to the [Salt Lake] Valley.”30
William’s instability during these years was not condoned by the other Smith families. Apostle George A. Smith, William’s cousin, in an 1857 speech viewed William’s pattern “to build himself up on the merits of others,” adding: “I feel that he has disgraced the family and the name.”31
William Smith never moved west, mainly because he waited for offers of help and status instead of making a personal sacrifice. But his former brethren had good will toward him even when viewing him realistically. Wilford Woodruff recorded an 1857 discussion of the First Presidency and a few apostles, including George A. Smith. Some interpreted the Prophet’s Kirtland blessing on William to mean “that he would become a good man when he became an old man.” Then President Young added his prophecy: “I will say in the name of the Lord that if Wm. Smith lives untill He is 65 or 70 years old He will become a good, humble man. He will do the best He Can—He will have to Answer for his sins.”32
In 1877 Brigham Young died, when William Smith was 66. Ten years earlier William returned from a Civil War enlistment to his Iowa land, where he was identified as a “farmer” on the 1870 census. One of his children, Edson Don Carlos Smith, was later converted by Mormon missionaries, and remembered the 1870s. William “had a hard struggle to get the farm paid for, but he finally succeeded.” He was “a good, kind, loving father to me.” The son described William’s appearance: “My father was well built and of powerful physique, standing six foot three in his stocking feet. He was of light complexion with grey-blue eyes.”33
William Smith joined the Reorganized Church in 1878, eighteen years after its beginning. Even during Joseph’s life, William had lived away from Nauvoo so consistently that he was out of touch with the Prophet’s later teachings, particularly temple work. It was easy for William to remain in his Iowa home and accept the early Restoration doctrines passively. He traveled only infrequently to preach in RLDS settings. In 1891 an RLDS missionary preached in William’s town and found him “assistant superintendent” of the community Sunday School;34 in the next year William said of his activity: “My position is such that as a rule I am not much occupied with the Re-organized church.”35
In later years William issued doctrinal letters with his old argumentive fire. These characteristically report what he did not hear about either polygamy or temple work, dubious evidence in view of his lack of Nauvoo intimacy with Joseph. William also crossed swords with old slanders against his family that continued to be printed. In writings and interviews he crisply insisted that his family was poor but honest, deeply religious but not superstitious. Above all, he supported Joseph’s testimony of finding the plates and translating them, for he had been there, had known the circumstances, and had even lifted the covered plates. William is the best guide to what is significant in his own Church career and personal testimony. He printed his story of Mormonism in 1883, closing his story with the peak of his career as an apostle at Kirtland. In conclusion he insisted that the world know “the fact of my unshaken confidence in my brother Joseph Smith as a true Prophet of God.”36 This knowledge was still firm upon his death a decade later.37
(For information about Joseph Smith’s sisters, see Ensign, Mar. 1979, pp. 42–45.)