The Knight Family: Part I
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“The Knight Family: Part I,” Tambuli, Oct. 1989, 25

The Knight Family:

Part I

The Joseph Knight family bore powerful testimony of the Prophet, and of his prophetic calling.

Joseph Smith spied aged Joseph Knight walking slowly down a Nauvoo street. He quickly overtook his longtime friend from New York and handed the elderly man his cane, insisting that Brother Knight keep it and pass it on to a descendant named Joseph.1 Their friendship had lasted nearly twenty years, dating to before the time Joseph Smith had received the Book of Mormon plates.

After the Smiths, the Joseph and Polly Knight family may be the second family of the Restoration. The Knights knew Joseph Smith and accepted his claims before Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, or David Whitmer knew him. The Knights also stood by Joseph Smith more steadfastly than did the Three and the Eight Witnesses and even some of the Smiths. They became a special type of witness, a family witness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic work.

Joseph Smith’s friendship with the Knights began when he was twenty years old. In late 1826, Joseph Smith became a hired hand for Joseph Knight, Sr., and others in the Colesville, New York, area. Young Joseph did farm work and probably helped at the Knights’ sawmill. He had experienced the First Vision six years before and had been meeting with Moroni for three years.

While helping the Knights, he shared a room with Joseph Knight, Jr., who wrote that in November 1826 Joseph Smith “made known to us 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 that if he would follow the direction of the Angel, he could get it. We were told this in secret.”2

Another son, Newel Knight, wrote that Joseph Smith visited them often and that they “were very deeply impressed with the truthfulness of his statements concerning the Plates of the Book of Mormon which had been shown him by an Angel of the Lord.”3

Joseph Smith was then courting Emma Hale, a romance Father Knight assisted: “I paid him the money and I furnished him with a horse and cutter [sled] to go and see his girlfriend.”4 Joseph and Emma married shortly after that on 18 January 1827 and moved to the Smith home near Palmyra some seventy-one kilometers away.

Retrieving the Plates

When the time came for Joseph Smith to obtain the plates, Father Knight traveled to the Smith home, where the Prophet used his wagon to retrieve the plates. Late that night, after Joseph Smith had returned from his mission, he said to Brother Knight, “It is ten times better than I expected.” According to Father Knight, the Prophet described the plates, though he “seemed to think more of the glasses or urim and thummim than he did of the plates. ‘For’ says he, ‘I can see any thing. They are marvelous.’”

By early 1828, Joseph and Emma had moved to Emma’s father’s property, about eighteen kilometers from the Knights. Joseph Smith found it impossible to both earn a living and translate the plates. The Smiths asked Father Knight for help. Although the Knights were not too well off financially, Joseph Knight, Sr., gave the young man some goods: “Some few things out of the store, a pair of shoes, and three dollars.” A few days later, Father Knight visited the couple and gave them some money to buy paper for the translation. Joseph Knight, Jr., recalled that, prior to Oliver Cowdery’s arrival, “Father and I often went to see him [Joseph Smith] and carry him something to live upon.”

Mrs. Knight was not yet a believer, so in March 1828 her husband took her by sled to visit the Smiths. He wrote, “Joseph talked with us about his translating and some revelations he had received. And from that time my wife began to believe.”

In early 1828, when Oliver Cowdery became Joseph Smith’s scribe, the two visited Father Knight, seeking provisions. Father Knight paid for and delivered some supplies including fish, grain, potatoes, and some lined paper for writing. Joseph and Oliver rejoiced at the food and paper, and “then they went to work, and had provisions enough to last till the translation was done.”

Years later, Joseph Smith praised Father Knight for these items: they “enabled us to continue the work when otherwise we must have relinquished it for a season.”5 Joseph Knight, Sr., helped the world receive the Book of Mormon sooner. If the Prophet had had to work full-time to support his family, the translation might have taken years to complete.

In May 1829, Joseph Knight, Sr., desired to know what he should do regarding the divine work then unfolding. The Prophet inquired of the Lord and received a revelation instructing Father Knight to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (D&C 12:6) and to give heed with all his might to God’s word. This was the first of many revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants directed to the Knights.6

In early June 1829, Joseph and Oliver finished the work of translation on the Book of Mormon, and the Three Witnesses and then the Eight Witnesses were allowed to see the plates. Sadly, none were Knights, who lived quite a distance away. But on the day the Church was organized, one-third of the sixty people there were Knight relatives from Colesville.

The Knights Are Baptized

Shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith went to Colesville to preach and hold meetings, probably because he knew that the Knights were ready to receive the gospel. While there, he challenged Newel Knight to pray vocally. In the attempt, Newel was attacked by an evil spirit that lifted him from the floor “and tossed him about most fearfully.” Neighbors gathered, and then saw the Prophet command the devil in the name of Jesus Christ to depart. Newel felt great relief and gladly accepted baptism. (This exorcism was the first miracle performed in the restored church.)7 He became the first of more than sixty of the Knight clan to join the Church.

At the Church’s first conference on 9 June 1830 at the Whitmer’s, those attending experienced spiritual outpourings similar to those on the Day of Pentecost. Newel was one. He beheld a vision much like the one Stephen the Martyr saw: “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 would be admitted into His presence, to enjoy His society for ever and ever.”

Despite local harassment, many Knight relatives were baptized on 28 June 1830. They included Father and Mother Knight, son Joseph, Newel’s wife Sally, daughter Esther and her husband William Stingham, and daughter Polly (named after her mother). Mother Knight was a Peck, and among the Peck relatives baptized were her brother Hezekiah and his wife Martha and her sister Esther and her husband Aaron Culver.8

Angry neighbors prevented the converts from being confirmed, and a constable arrested Joseph Smith. Father Knight, indignant, hired James Davidson and John Reid, neighboring farmers well versed in the law, to defend his friend. They did, and Joseph Smith was acquitted the following midnight.9

Joseph Knight, Jr., said that feelings in the neighborhood became heated: “That night our wagons were turned over and wood piled on them, and some sunk in the water, [wooden] rails were piled against our doors, and chains thrown in the stream and a great deal of mischief done.”

Within hours after his acquittal, Joseph Smith was arrested again and tried in Colesville. Father Knight’s lawyer friends felt too tired to help, but finally gave in to his pleadings. Mr. Reid said that Father Knight was “like the old patriarchs that followed the ark of God to the city of David.” Newel, called upon to testify, told the court that no, Joseph Smith had not cast a devil out of him, but that Joseph by God’s power had cast it out.” (See accompanying article: “Joseph’s Appearance in Court.”) Mr. Davidson and Mr. Reid picked apart the prosecution’s case, and Joseph Smith was freed.10

In September 1830, Newel Knight and his sister Anna’s husband, Freeborn DeMille, attended the Church’s second conference, held at Fayette, New York.11 Newel was ordained a priest, and Freeborn was baptized.

At Fayette, Newel Knight became the young prophet’s confidant during a crisis caused by Hiram Page’s claim of receiving revelations for the Church through a peepstone. Newel wrote that Hiram Page carried “quite a roll of papers full of these revelations,” which led many astray. Joseph Smith “was perplexed and scarcely knew how to meet this new exigency.” Sharing the same room, the two friends spent the greater part of the night in prayer. In response, Joseph received a revelation (see D&C 28) that spelled out the proper channels for revelation to reach the Church. Newel reported, “Brother Page and all … present renounced the stone, … much to our joy and satisfaction.”

After the meetings, Hyrum Smith was appointed to preside over the Colesville Branch. He and his wife Jerusha lived with and became good friends with Newel and Sally Knight. Later, Newel succeeded Hyrum as branch president.

The Sacrifice of Moving

In December 1830, the Church was commanded to “assemble together at the Ohio.” (D&C 37:3.) Newel Knight said that this entailed the sacrifice of their property. Newel sold 60 acres, Freeborn DeMille 61 acres, Aaron Culver 100 acres, and Father Knight 140 acres, with “two dwelling houses, a good barn, and a fine orchard.” Led by Newel, sixty-two Knight relations moved to Ohio as part of the first gathering. Unlike other Church units, the Colesville Branch remained intact.

The family settled on Leman Copley’s land near Painesville, Ohio, and became the first people in the Church in this dispensation to try to live an economic cooperative order. (See D&C 48; D&C 51.) But Leman Copley soon withdrew his land and ordered the Saints off. Father Knight wrote, “We sold out what we could but Copley took the advantage of us and we could not get any thing for what we had done.” Newel Knight asked the Prophet for counsel, and in response Joseph Smith received a revelation directing the Knight clan to move once again, this time to Missouri. (See D&C 54.)

On 25 July 1832, Joseph Smith welcomed his Colesville friends to Missouri and directed them to settle eight kilometers west of Independence. Father Knight wrote, “We found the country to be beautiful, rich and pleasant and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could.”

Joseph’s Appearance in Court

As Joseph Smith was acquitted by the Chenango County court of all charges made against him, officials from neighboring Broome County presented another warrant for his arrest.

Newel Knight recorded in his journal:

“The constable who served this second warrant upon Joseph had no sooner arrested him, than he began to abuse him.” Even though he had been in court all day without food, Joseph was not permitted to eat. Instead he was taken some nine kilometers to a tavern where a crowd gathered to “abuse, ridicule, and insult him. They spit upon him, pointed their fingers at him, saying, ‘Prophesy! Prophesy!’”

Joseph, aided by members of the Knight family and his two legal counselors, appeared in Colesville magistrate’s court where testimony against him was so contradictory it was dismissed.

Finally, Newel Knight was called as a witness, and he was questioned by the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Seymour.

“Mr. Seymour asked: ‘Did the prisoner, Joseph Smith, Jun., cast the devil out of you?’

“Answer: ‘No, sir.’

“Question: ‘Well, have you not had the devil cast out of you?’

“Answer: ‘Yes, sir.’

“Question: ‘And had not Joseph Smith some part in it being done?’

“Answer: ‘Yes, sir.’

“Question: ‘And did he not cast him out of you?’

“Answer: ‘No, sir, it was done by the power of God, and Joseph Smith was the instrument in the hands of God on this occasion. He commanded him [the devil] to come out of me in the name of Jesus Christ.’

“Question: ‘And are you sure it was the devil?’

“Answer: ‘Yes sir.’

“Question: ‘What did he look like?’

“(Here one of the lawyers on the part of the defense told me I need not answer that question.) I replied:

“‘I believe I need not answer that question, but I will do it if I am allowed to ask you one, and you can answer it. Do you, Mr. Seymour, understand the things of the Spirit?’

“‘No,’ answered Mr. Seymour, ‘I do not pretend to such big things.’

“‘Well, then,’ I replied, ‘it will be of no use for me to tell you what the devil looked like, for it was a spiritual sight and spiritually discerned, and, of course, you would not understand it were I to tell you of it.’

“The lawyer dropped his head, while the loud laugh of the audience proclaimed his discomfiture.”

Joseph’s lawyers, although not formally trained in the legal profession, successfully countered the prosecution’s arguments and he was cleared of all charges and set free.

(See “Newel Knight Journal,” Scraps of Biography. Tenth Book of the Faith-promoting Series, Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883.)

(To be concluded in the next issue.)


  1. This article is adapted from the author’s “They Are My Friends”: A History of the Joseph Knight Family, 1825–1850 (Provo, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1986). The cane story is on page three.

  2. In this article, all quotations from Joseph Knight, Jr., are from his “Incidents of History,” Church Archives.

  3. In this article, all quotations from Newel Knight are from his unpublished journal, Church Archives.

  4. In this article, all quotations from Joseph Knight, Sr., are from his history as published in Dean C. Jesse, editor, “Joseph Knight’s Recollections of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Autumn 1976): 26–39.

  5. History of the Church, 1:47.

  6. See Doctrine and Covenants 12, 23, 37, 52, 54, 56, 58, 124.

  7. History of the Church, 1:82:83.

  8. Ibid., 1:87:88.

  9. Ibid, 1:88–91, 95.

  10. Ibid, 1:91–96.

  11. Another account of the conference is in History of the Church, 1:109–20.

  • William G. Hartley is an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University and a research historian for the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. He serves as bishop of the Sandy Thirty-seventh Ward, Sandy Utah East Stake.

Illustrated by Paul Mann