“Faithful First Believers,” Liahona, Feb. 2001, 38
As the Prophet Joseph Smith administered ordinances associated with the endowment in the Kirtland Temple in January 1836, he beheld a vision of the celestial kingdom. Searching for words to express “the glory thereof,” he described “the transcendent beauty” of its gate like “circling flames of fire,” its “beautiful streets,” and the Father and the Son seated on “the blazing throne of God” (D&C 137:1–4). To his great joy, he also saw his brother Alvin “and my father and my mother” (D&C 137:5).
Alvin had died 13 years earlier. His virtuous life, support of Joseph’s mission, and obedience to the commandments explain his exaltation. However, Joseph’s parents were still alive, so how could their exaltation be shown?
The answer came as the Lord continued His explanation: “For I, the Lord, will judge all … according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:9).
What were the works and desires of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith—these faithful first believers of the restored gospel—that can inspire Latter-day Saints today in our own quest for celestial glory? To be brief, they sought the truth, they found it, and they cleaved to it thereafter (see Matt. 7:8).
In New England, they sought gospel truth. In New York, they found it. In Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, they lived true to the gospel, not shrinking from sacrifice, poverty, physical suffering, scorn of the world, and sorrow at the deaths of loved ones. At all stages, they earnestly taught gospel principles to their family, offered selfless service, and testified consistently of God’s goodness.
As children, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack were each raised in pious and industrious New England homes. Joseph, born in 1771 to Asael and Mary Duty Smith of Topsfield, Massachusetts, was the third of 11 children. Lucy, born in 1775, at Gilsum, New Hampshire, was the youngest of Solomon and Lydia Gates Mack’s eight children. Both sets of parents taught their children duty to God, hard work, family unity, literacy, and conduct suitable to polite society.
Both families, like many around them, were “seekers” who took the Bible and personal prayer seriously but felt that mainstream Christianity had departed from the Bible. They were consequently looking forward to a renewal of Christ’s Church. Joseph Sr.’s father, Asael, believed that a latter-day prophet would be born among his descendants. Lucy was deeply affected in childhood and youth by the goodness of her mother and the example of two older sisters who expressed unflinching faith, even in lengthy terminal illnesses. As a young woman, Lucy sought “a change of heart” that would align her to God.
At age 19, Lucy accompanied her brother Stephen on a business trip to Tunbridge, Vermont, where she met 23-year-old Joseph. A year of friendship turned to love, and they were married on 24 January 1796. It was a promising union. They enjoyed good health, were surrounded by kin and friends, and had money set aside. According to traditional New England culture, such prosperity and social acceptance were signs of favor with God. But during the 20 years they lived in neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire towns, Joseph and Lucy learned the hard but important lesson that life was not as simple as that.
When they moved to Palmyra, New York, in 1816, they had been tried in every possible way. Two of their 10 children had died. They had been impoverished by a national economic downturn and a dishonest business associate. Poor weather had caused crop failures three seasons in a row. Lucy came near death from the consumption that had killed her two sisters. A typhus epidemic attacked all of Joseph and Lucy’s children. Little Sophronia’s life was spared only after her parents poured out their hearts on their knees by her bedside with “grief and supplication.” And young Joseph, age seven or eight, suffered a bone marrow infection—a complication that required almost-crippling surgery. The family’s good reputation had also suffered along with their fortunes, and they were “warned out” of the Vermont village where they lived so that the town would not be required to provide assistance.
It was also a time of spiritual tempering. When Lucy had been given up to die from consumption, she covenanted to serve God all her days and to seek “the religion that would enable [her] to serve him right,” even if “obtained from heaven by prayer and faith.” She was healed and faithfully sought that religion for the next two decades, not yet understanding that her own son would introduce her to it. “For days and months and years,” without ceasing, she “continued asking God … to reveal … the hidden treasures of his will.” Joseph Sr.’s mistrust of organized religion did not let him share her quest among the churches she had access to, but it did not become a source of contention between them. Rather, she prayed sincerely for consolation and was comforted by a dream that assured her Joseph Sr. would accept the truth when it was presented to him.
Lucy wrote, “We felt more to acknowledge the hand of God in preserving our lives through such a desperate siege of disease, pain, and trouble than if we had enjoyed health and prosperity.” They forgave their debtors, paid their debts, and unitedly sought to better their fortunes by moving to western New York.
Joseph Sr. preceded Lucy and the children to Palmyra. By the time the family was reunited, their ready money had been reduced to a few cents. But that arrival showed two important traits of the family. First was their unconcealed joy at being reunited. Lucy wrote that she felt joy “in throwing myself and my children upon the care and affection of a tender husband and father” and witnessing the children “surround their father, clinging to his neck and covering his face with tears and kisses that were heartily reciprocated by him.” And second was a united approach to solving their problems. Lucy said, “We all now sat down and maturely counseled together as to what course it was best to take [and] how we should proceed to business.” Joseph Sr., Alvin, and Hyrum worked to pay for land. To maintain home and to replenish provisions, Lucy, aided by Sophronia and the younger children, took care of household chores and sold Lucy’s oilcloth art. They also made baked goods and root beer, which young Joseph sold in the village from a homemade handcart.
The family’s united effort greatly improved their material circumstances. Two years after arriving in Palmyra as “strangers, destitute of friends, home, or employment,” Lucy wrote, “we were able to settle ourselves upon our own land [in] a snug, comfortable, though humble habitation, built and neatly furnished by our own industry.”
Lucy’s unceasing hunger for spiritual truth was about to bear fruit. In the spring of 1820, her 14-year-old son Joseph experienced the First Vision, wherein he saw the Father and the Son, his sins were forgiven, he was commanded to join no church, and he was instructed that the fulness of the gospel was soon to be restored. Three years later, the heavenly messenger Moroni instructed Joseph that he had been chosen by the Lord to bring forth an ancient book that contained “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel” (JS—H 1:34).
Moroni also instructed Joseph to tell his father of the visitation, which he did. His father fully believed, and Joseph had the complete support of his family, including his brothers and sisters. “We were convinced that God was about to bring to light something that we might stay our minds upon,” wrote Lucy. “We rejoiced in it with exceeding great joy.”
She records a tender memory of the entire family, gathered at the fireside after the day’s labor, listening to young Joseph with the greatest attention as he recounted to them incidents from the Book of Mormon. “The sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house; no jar nor discord disturbed our peace and tranquility reigned in our midst.” Lucy and Joseph Sr. realized this treasure was eternal, while the world could offer only vain things.
Sweet though this knowledge was, the seven years between Moroni’s first visit on 21–22 September 1823 and the official organization of the Church on 6 April 1830 were a time of great testing for Joseph and Lucy. They arranged to purchase forest land in Manchester, New York; began clearing the land; built a log home, barn, and outbuildings; planted an orchard; and began building a large New England–style frame house. By 1830 the farm was numbered among the better ones in the township and was known for its “neatness and arrangement.”
A bitter blow fell when Alvin died suddenly, only six weeks after the angel Moroni’s visitation. The family’s “happiness [was] blasted in a moment,” and Joseph, Lucy, and the children “were for a time … swallowed up in grief.” On the heels of this sorrow, they lost the title to their farm. Alvin had earned enough money for all but the last payment “after much labor, suffering, and fatigue” before his death and had also begun the construction of their new frame home. When the first land agent died, there was a misunderstanding, and through deception the carpenter they hired to finish their home acquired the deed. A Quaker gentleman came to their rescue, purchasing the land and allowing them to live in the house and on the farm for the next four years in exchange for their son Samuel’s work.
One of Lucy’s most poignant memories is her distress when she realized that they were going to lose the home that had been designed by her beloved Alvin for the express purpose of seeing that she and Joseph Sr. would be comfortable in their old age. “I was overcome and fell back into a chair almost deprived of sensibility,” she wrote. She asked Hyrum: “What can this mean? … How … is [it] that all which we have earned in the last 10 years is taken away from us in one instant?” Her feelings were natural, but when they had to move from the home three years later, she told Oliver Cowdery, who was boarding with them: “I now look around me upon all these things that have been gathered together for my happiness which have cost the toil of years. … I now give it all up for the sake of Christ and salvation, and I pray God to help me to do so without one murmur or a tear. … I will not cast one longing look upon anything which I leave behind me.”
She spoke for her husband as well. What they left behind was more than a comfortable home. Resentment had grown steadily toward them because of Joseph’s spiritual experiences. Most of their former neighbors and friends shunned them; some actively lied about them. Others took advantage of them, ransacked their property, and pressed petty lawsuits.
To Joseph and Lucy’s credit, they did not become bitter and vindictive. “We doubled our diligence in prayer before God that Joseph might be more fully instructed and preserved,” wrote Lucy. They were the first to know of and accept Joseph Jr.’s calling, sorrowed with him when the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were lost, helped guard the plates, heard the testimony of the Three Witnesses, and were among the earliest to be baptized. Joseph Sr. and two sons, Hyrum and Samuel, were among the Eight Witnesses.
In a sweet moment, Lucy was nearly overawed by the realization that “I [am] indeed the mother of a prophet of the God of heaven—the honored instrument in performing so great work.” In another unforgettable moment, her prophet son embraced his father immediately after Joseph Sr.’s baptism and exclaimed, “[Praise to] my God! have I lived to see my own father baptized into the true church of Jesus Christ!”
Joseph and Lucy’s search for religious truth extended from their youth through 34 years of marriage. For the remaining 10 years before Joseph Sr.’s death in 1840, they walked steadfastly on the path before them with confidence that if they served God with all their hearts, they would stand blameless before Him at the last day (see D&C 4:2).
Joseph and Lucy never again owned a home of their own. In Kirtland they lived on a farm a short distance out of town that had been made available to Joseph Jr. Here they lodged, fed, and preached to “droves of company” who were gathering to Kirtland, “breaking [them]selves down with hard work.” In Missouri the Prophet Joseph arranged for them and his married sisters to manage an inn in Far West. In Nauvoo, with Joseph Sr. suffering from his final illness, they lived in a small dwelling near Joseph Jr.’s home. Yet their straitened circumstances did not hinder them in fulfilling their baptismal covenant of bearing one another’s burdens and standing as witnesses of the gospel (see Mosiah 18:8–9).
Lucy was skilled at nursing, and Joseph was supportive. A Palmyra neighbor praised them as “the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness, and one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died.” At Far West, Lucy willingly assumed the care of “20 or 30 sick … during the mobbing.” When Nauvoo was first settled and “scores of children were dying with the Black Canker” (scurvy), the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum “set apart their dear mother to labor and nurse the sick.” She “spent months amongst the poor, sick Saints.” A young neighbor called Lucy “one of the finest of women, always helping them that stood in need.”
Joseph and Lucy hospitably shared what they had. In the pre-Church years, they welcomed an orphan boy into their home as well as two elderly folk. A newlywed couple lived with them for several months in Kirtland. In Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo, they often gave every bed in the house to guests, while Joseph and Lucy shared a single blanket on the floor. They fed new arrivals and missionaries, hosted Church councils and meetings, made their home a haven where patriarchal blessings could be given in a spiritual environment, offered personal counsel and doctrinal discussions, and held a family devotional with hymns and prayers every evening.
Their testimony of the gospel’s truthfulness strengthened members and challenged critics. A Palmyra resident purchased Joseph Sr.’s note and demanded instant payment but offered to forgive the debt if he would burn the Book of Mormon. Even though he was ill, Joseph refused and went to debtors’ prison for several weeks.
Ordained an elder in June 1830, Joseph Sr. promptly preached the gospel to his parents and siblings. Despite bitter opposition and indifference on the part of some, his joy was great when his brothers John, Asael Jr., and Silas converted and gathered with the Saints. At age 65, as Patriarch to the Church, he set out on a patriarchal mission to members in the eastern United States. By the time of his death, he had given several hundred patriarchal blessings of encouragement and inspiration. He served on the Church’s first high council at Kirtland and in 1834 was ordained with Hyrum as Assistant President of the Church. At the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, this aged servant of the Lord beheld marvelous things.
Lucy was no whit behind him in valor. When an officer in Lucy’s former church pressed her to deny the Book of Mormon, she defied him: “Even you should stick my body full of faggots and burn me at the stake I would declare that … record … to be true as long as God gave me breath.”
On another occasion when some of the elders felt that identifying themselves as Latter-day Saints would bring persecution upon them, Lucy boldly stated, “I [will] tell the people precisely who I [am].” When a minister scoffed that the Book of Mormon was beneath his notice, Lucy testified, “Sir, let me tell you boldly that the Book of Mormon contains the everlasting gospel, and it was written for the salvation of your soul, by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost.” Seven months after the murders of Joseph and Hyrum, Lucy, speaking for herself and her dead husband, claimed, “It has been in our hearts to fetch forth this Kingdom that it may roll forth.”
Both Joseph Sr. and Lucy received all the temple ordinances then available to Church members. For Joseph Sr., these were preparatory ordinances in the Kirtland Temple. Lucy received her initiatory ordinances and endowment in the Nauvoo Temple on 10 December 1845.
What are the lessons for us today from these faithful believers? First, as parents they taught their children to obey the gospel, to work unitedly and hard, and to pray unceasingly for guidance and desired blessings. Their examples matched their precepts.
Second, they set the example for their children of valuing truth wherever they found it. They willingly, even joyously, learned from one of their children instead of feeling that as parents they needed to know all the answers.
Third, devotion to the gospel was their first priority. Even when they were called to endure poverty, hopelessness, illness, and scorn, they did not waver in their allegiance to the truth.
Fourth, although they had few means, they shared them willingly and served the other Saints and the community to the limits of their strength.
Fifth, they kept their family together. Whether driven by persecution or drawn by the gathering, Joseph and Lucy, in following the Saints, took even their married children with them, nurturing their faith, nursing them when ill, and providing loving support.
Sixth, they endured to the end. Despite trials and suffering that might have embittered them and caused them to question their faith, they remained devoted. In 1840 Joseph Sr. died as Patriarch to the Church, surrounded by his family and the Saints. Seventy-year-old Lucy remained in Nauvoo with her four living children and her daughter-in-law Emma when the Saints left in 1846, but Lucy’s faith in her son Joseph’s mission never wavered.
As first believers, she and her husband set a standard of exemplary parenthood and of devotion to each other and to the truth. Their example lights the way for all Latter-day Saint families in our own day.