“Chapter Two: Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 15–27
“Chapter Two,” Church History in the Fulness of Times, 15–27
We are all affected and influenced by our surroundings. We are nourished and nurtured by families and friends and respond to our environment. Joseph Smith grew up on the family farm and was almost exclusively under his family’s influence. The things he learned at home were the most important legacy of his New England heritage. His parents emphasized hard work, patriotism, and personal religion. Joseph learned, listened well, and gleaned much from his heritage. During his formative years, Joseph Smith began to incorporate and manifest qualities that would help him fulfill his foreordained mission.
An examination of Joseph Smith’s ancestry shows that his family possessed important character traits that were perpetuated in him. He developed strong family bonds, learned to work hard, to think for himself, to serve others, and to love liberty. He recalled, “Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.”1 Although not always affiliated with a church, generations of his ancestors sought to live by correct religious principles, and some anticipated that an important spiritual leader would be raised up among their posterity.
Among the rolling hills about twenty miles north of Boston, Massachusetts, is the small township of Topsfield, where many of the Prophet’s ancestors lived. Five generations of Smiths lived in Topsfield. The first of these was Joseph Smith’s third-great-grandfather, Robert Smith, who emigrated from Topsfield, England, to Boston in 1638 while still in his teens. Robert married Mary French and, after a brief stay in nearby Rowley, settled in Topsfield, Massachusetts. They were the parents of ten children. When Robert died in 1693 he left an estate valued at 189 pounds, a comparatively large sum for the era. Samuel Smith, a son of Robert and Mary, was born in 1666. He was listed on the town and county records as a “gentleman” and apparently held a public office. He married Rebecca Curtis, and they had nine children.
Samuel and Rebecca’s first son was born in 1714. Samuel, Jr., was a distinguished community leader and a promoter of the American War of Independence. According to his obituary, “He was a sincere friend to the liberties of his country, and a strenuous advocate for the doctrines of Christianity.”2 Samuel, Jr., married Priscilla Gould, who descended from one of Topsfield’s founders. Priscilla died after bearing five children, and Samuel married her cousin, also named Priscilla. They had no children together, but she raised Samuel’s children by his first wife, including Asael, Joseph Smith’s grandfather.
Asael, born in 1744, was affiliated with the established religion in New England, the Congregationalists, but he later became skeptical of organized religion. To his thinking the teachings of established churches were not reconcilable with scripture and common sense. At age twenty-three he married Mary Duty of Rowley, Massachusetts. At great sacrifice to himself and his family, Asael moved from Derryfield, New Hampshire, back to Topsfield, where he worked for five years to liquidate the debts his father had been unable to pay before his death.
The Smiths remained in Topsfield until 1791, when Asael, Mary, and their eleven children moved briefly to Ipswich, Massachusetts, and then on to Tunbridge, Vermont, in quest of inexpensive, virgin land. At Tunbridge, Asael continued his community service, and during his thirty years there occupied nearly every elected office.
Asael’s philosophy agreed with that of the Universalists, who believed in Jesus Christ as a god of love who would save all of his children. Like all Universalists, Asael was more comfortable with a god who was more interested in saving than in destroying mankind. He believed that life continued after death.
In an address to his family, Asael wrote: “The soul is immortal. … Do all to God in a serious manner. When you think of him, speak of him, pray to him, or in any way make your addresses to his great majesty, be in good earnest. … And as to religion, study the nature of religion, and see whether it consists in outward formalities, or in the hidden man of the heart. …
“Sure I am my Savior, Christ, is perfect, and never will fail in one circumstance. To him I commit your souls, bodies, estates, names, characters, lives, deaths and all—and myself, waiting when he shall change my vile body and make it like his own glorious body.”3
Asael Smith also predicted that “God was going to raise up some branch of his family to be a great benefit to mankind.”4 Many years later when his son Joseph Smith, Sr., gave him a recently published Book of Mormon, he was vitally interested. George A. Smith recorded, “My grandfather Asael fully believed the Book of Mormon, which he read nearly through.”5 Asael died in the fall of 1830, confident that his grandson Joseph was the long-anticipated prophet and that he had heralded in a new religious age.
Mary Duty Smith outlived her husband Asael by six years. In 1836 Mary, accompanied by Elias Smith, a missionary grandson, traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, to join her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who had gathered there. “The meeting between the grandmother and her prophet descendant and his brother was most touching; Joseph blessed her and said she was the most honored woman on earth.”6 She completely accepted the testimony of her grandson and fully intended to be baptized. Unfortunately, her age and health prevented this. She died on 27 May 1836, just ten days after arriving in Kirtland.
Comparatively little is known about the Mack family through which Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack, came. John Mack, who descended from a line of Scottish clergymen, left his native Inverness and arrived in New England in 1669. For a number of years he lived in Salisbury, Massachusetts. He and his wife moved to Lyme, Connecticut, in 1696. Their eighth child, Ebenezer, married Hannah Huntley, and they prospered for a time on the Mack estate. But prosperity was short-lived, and Solomon, born in 1732, was apprenticed to a neighboring farmer in Lyme at the age of four. He recalled, “I was treated by my master as his property and not as his fellow mortal.”7 He remained an apprentice until the age of twenty-one, but his master never taught or spoke to him about religion.
For most of the rest of his life, Solomon searched for the anchorage he never found as a youth. Having fulfilled his apprenticeship, he enlisted for service in the French and Indian War. In succeeding years Solomon was a merchant, land developer, shipmaster, mill operator, and farmer. Though he expended considerable effort, fortune did not favor him, and he was beset with accidents, hardships, and financial reverses.
This hearty adventurer did experience some good fortune in 1759, when he met and soon married Lydia Gates. Lydia, a trained and accomplished schoolteacher, was the first child of the respected and successful Congregationalist church deacon Daniel Gates. Lydia had been a practicing Congregationalist from her early youth. Although Solomon and Lydia came from contrasting backgrounds, theirs was an enduring marriage. Lydia took charge of both the secular and religious educations of her eight sons and daughters. She probably taught her husband to read and write along with their children. Solomon believed that Lydia not only exhibited “the polish of education, but she also possessed that inestimable jewel which in a wife and mother of a family is truly a pearl of great price, namely, a pious and devotional character.”8
Soon after their marriage, Solomon purchased sixteen hundred acres of wilderness land in northern New York. A leg injury prevented him from clearing the land as the contract stipulated, and he lost the property. In 1761 Solomon and Lydia settled with two young sons in Marlow, New Hampshire. They remained there for ten years and had four more children. In 1771 the Macks moved to Gilsum, New Hampshire, where two additional children were born. The youngest, Lucy, was the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mother.
Solomon served a short term in the army during the American Revolution. Later he signed on for a second stint, this time in the artillery, but took ill and was sent home. He might have been safer with his unit. Not long after his return he was crushed by a tree his son had felled, and after four months of recuperation fell on a waterwheel. Thereafter he was subject to periods of unconsciousness, or “fits” as he called them.9
But Solomon Mack could never forego adventure for long. With his teenage sons, he joined the crew of an American privateer. After the war he sailed on a fishing schooner, purchased the boat when it was damaged in a hurricane, lost it in a shipwreck, and then fell ill. Returning home with nothing after four years away, he found Lydia and the children evicted from their house because of the underhanded dealings of a creditor. “I did not care whether I lived or died,” Solomon wrote of this period, but through hard work he was soon able to provide for his family again.10
Solomon Mack had not been outwardly religious, though he was a God-fearing and good-hearted man. He showed little inclination toward scripture reading or church-going, but in 1810 rheumatism forced him to reassess his values. “After this I determined to follow phantoms no longer, but devote the rest of my life to the service of God and my family.”11 That winter he read the Bible and prayed earnestly; eventually he found peace of soul and mind. Until his death in 1820, Solomon spent much of his time telling others of his conversion and admonishing them to serve the Lord. He wrote an autobiography with the hope that others would not become enamored with material gain as he had. He enthusiastically shared his conviction with his grandchildren, among whom was young Joseph Smith, Jr. Solomon died just three weeks before his eighty-eighth birthday, several months after his grandson’s remarkable vision of the Father and the Son, of which he was probably unaware.
During the years of Solomon’s mishaps and adventures, his wife, Lydia Gates, provided stability and direction for their children. All the children, especially Lucy, the youngest daughter, showed her influence. Lucy gave credit to her mother “for all the religious instructions as well as most of the educational privileges which I had ever received.”12
Lucy, though intelligent, assertive, and reared amid pious surroundings, did not experience significant spiritual stirrings until age nineteen. She wondered if life had meaning and soon concluded she needed to revise her gloomy attitude. To avoid being labeled worldly, she decided to join a church but was frustrated at the rival claims put forth by various clergymen. She inquired, “How can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they are all unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days!”13
Lucy did not find a satisfying answer to her spiritual dilemma. Seemingly convinced that existing churches could not fulfill her needs, she temporarily put aside her quest for a church, and gradually her anxiety dissipated. In less than two years she met and married Joseph Smith, Sr. Little did Lucy realize that from that union would come a prophet-son who would give solace and direction to all who, like herself, were seeking to find the Church of Jesus Christ.
Lucy Mack met Joseph Smith, Sr., while visiting her brother Stephen at Tunbridge, Vermont. Joseph was twenty-five, over six feet tall, and powerfully built, like his father, Asael. After their marriage on 24 January 1796, they settled on one of the family farms in Tunbridge. They spent six years there, during which their first three children were born. Joseph and Lucy rented out their Tunbridge farm, possibly because of stony soil, and moved to Randolph in 1802, where they opened a mercantile establishment.
In Randolph Lucy fell ill. A physician diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis, the illness her older sisters, Lovisa and Lovina, had died from. Hearing that doctors said she would die, Lucy pleaded with the Lord to spare her life so that she might bring comfort to her children and husband.
Lucy wrote, “I made a solemn covenant with God that if He would let me live I would endeavor to serve him according to the best of my abilities. Shortly after this I heard a voice say to me, ‘Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Let your heart be comforted; ye believe in God, believe also in me.’
“… As soon as I was able I made all diligence in endeavoring to find someone who was capable of instructing me more perfectly in the way of life and salvation. …
“… I went from place to place for the purpose of getting information and finding, if it were possible, some congenial spirit who could enter into my feelings and thus be able to strengthen and assist me in carrying out my resolutions. …
“… I said in my heart that there was not then upon earth the religion which I sought. I therefore determined to examine my Bible and, taking Jesus and His disciples for my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away. …
“At length I considered it my duty to be baptized and, finding a minister who was willing to baptize me and leave me free in regard to joining any religious denomination, I stepped forward and yielded obedience to this ordinance.”14
While Lucy was preoccupied with religion and salvation, her husband was embarking on an ill-fated economic venture. Learning that ginseng root, which grew wild in Vermont, was highly valued in China, Joseph, who had experienced a series of financial setbacks, invested heavily in the herb. Having obtained a substantial quantity, he was offered three thousand dollars for it by a Mr. Stevens from Royalton, but he declined. When Joseph went to New York to arrange for shipment, Mr. Stevens followed him to find out which ship Joseph’s cargo was on. Having some ginseng himself, he sent his son to represent himself and Joseph in selling the product. Young Stevens sold the ginseng at a good profit, but misrepresented the returns and gave Joseph Smith, Sr., only a chest of tea. When Stevens’ dishonesty was discovered, he fled to Canada with the money, leaving Joseph and Lucy with an eighteen-hundred-dollar debt. Lucy recalled, “This farm, which was worth about fifteen hundred dollars, my husband sold for eight hundred dollars in order to make a speedy payment.”15 To this Lucy added the one thousand dollars she had received for a wedding present. They were out of debt, but penniless.
Joseph and Lucy moved briefly to Royalton, Vermont, and then to Sharon in Windsor County, where they rented Lucy’s father’s farm. Joseph farmed in the summer and taught school in the winter. While in Sharon, Joseph and Lucy had another son, born 23 December 1805, whom they named Joseph. Naming him this fulfilled a prophecy of Joseph in Egypt who had predicted that a “choice seer” would be raised up among his descendants. One of the keys by which this seer could be identified was that he would receive the name of the ancient patriarch Joseph, which would also be his father’s name (see 2 Nephi 3:14–15).
Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy were dutiful parents and endeavored to teach their children religious precepts. Lucy especially encouraged her children to study the Bible. Their son William, born in 1811, recalled his mother’s concern with religious matters: “My mother who was a very pious woman and much interested in the welfare of her children, both here and hereafter, made use of every means which her parental love could suggest, to get us engaged in seeking for our souls’ salvation.”16
Place of Birth
11 February 1798
19 November 1823
9 February 1800
27 June 1844
16 May 1803
5. Joseph, Jr.
23 December 1805
27 June 1844
6. Samuel Harrison
13 March 1808
30 July 1844
13 March 1810
24 March 1810
13 March 1811
13 November 1893
28 July 1812
Lebanon, New Hampshire
1 February 1900
10. Don Carlos
25 March 1816
7 August 1841
18 July 1821
Palmyra, New York
9 December 1882
Joseph, Sr., was as gentle as he was big. Heber C. Kimball recalled he was “one of the most cheerful men I ever saw, and he was harmless as a child.”17 Lucy said he was “an affectionate companion and tender father as ever blessed the confidence of a family.”18
Though less inclined to teaching his family, Joseph, Sr., was religious. William remembered: “My father’s religious habits [were] strictly pious and moral.”19 Like his father, Asael, Joseph was suspicious of traditional churches but always retained a strong belief in God. Sometime in 1811, his “mind became much excited upon the subject of religion.”20 While in this state of agitation and concern, he had the first of a series of dreams which came within an eight-year period. In the first dream Joseph found himself traveling through a barren field of dead timber with a spirit who told him the field represented the world without religion. Joseph was told he would find a box of food which if eaten would make him wise. He tried to partake but was prevented from doing so by horned beasts. He told Lucy he awoke trembling but happy and that he was now convinced that even the religious knew nothing of the kingdom of God.
Later in 1811, Joseph, Sr., experienced a second profound dream that related to his family. It was much like Lehi’s dream of the tree of life. He found himself following a path to a beautiful fruit tree. As he began to eat the delicious fruit, he realized that he must bring his wife and family to the tree so they could enjoy it together. He went and brought them, and they began to eat. He reported that “We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.”21
His last dream took place in 1819 in New York, shortly before his son’s first vision. A messenger said, “I have … always found you strictly honest in all your dealings. … I have now come to tell you that this is the last time I shall ever call on you, and that there is but one thing which you lack in order to secure your salvation.”22 He awoke before learning what he lacked. Because heavenly communications were part of Joseph, Sr.’s life, it was easy for him to accept his son’s prophetic calling. Eventually he learned that he lacked the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the Lord restored through his son Joseph.
During Joseph Smith’s earliest years, his family moved frequently, looking for fertile soil or some other way to earn a livelihood. Their first move after his birth took them from Sharon to Tunbridge. In 1807, soon after Samuel was born, they moved to Royalton, Vermont, where two more sons were born. Shortly after William’s birth in 1811 the Smiths moved to the small community of West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and began, according to Lucy, “to contemplate, with joy and satisfaction, the prosperity which had attended our recent exertions.”23 Her optimism gave way to despair when typhoid fever came into West Lebanon and “raged tremendously.” It was part of an epidemic that swept the upper Connecticut valley, leaving six thousand people dead. One by one the Smith children fell ill. Sophronia, afflicted for three months, was near death but began to recover when Joseph and Lucy beseeched the Lord to spare her.
Seven-year-old Joseph, Jr., recovered from his fever after two weeks but suffered complications that eventually required four surgeries. The most serious complication involved a swelling and infection in the tibia of his left leg, a condition that today would be called osteomyelitis. Joseph was in agony for over two weeks. Throughout the ordeal his older brother Hyrum showed him great tenderness. Lucy recorded: “Hyrum sat beside him, almost day and night for some considerable length of time, holding the affected part of his leg in his hands and pressing it between them, so that his afflicted brother might be enabled to endure the pain.”24
The first two attempts to reduce the swelling and drain the infection in Joseph’s leg failed. The chief surgeon recommended amputation, but Lucy refused and urged the doctors, “You will not, you must not, take off his leg, until you try once more.”25 Providentially, “the only physician in the United States who aggressively and successfully operated for osteomyelitis” in that era was Dr. Nathan Smith, a brilliant physician at Dartmouth Medical College in Hanover, New Hampshire.26 He was the principal surgeon, or at least the chief adviser, in Joseph’s case. In his treatment of the disease, Dr. Smith was generations ahead of his time.
Joseph insisted on enduring the operation without being bound or drinking brandy wine to dull his senses. He asked his mother to leave the room so she would not have to see him suffer. She consented, but when the physicians broke off part of the bone with forceps and Joseph screamed, she rushed back into the room. “Oh, mother, go back, go back,” Joseph cried out. She did, but returned a second time only to be removed again.27 After the ordeal Joseph went with his Uncle Jesse Smith to the seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts, hoping that the sea breezes would help his recovery. Due to the severity of the operation, his recovery was slow. He walked with crutches for three years and sometimes limped slightly thereafter, but he returned to health and led a robust life.
According to his mother, Joseph’s operation may have been the only notable incident in his early boyhood.28 About 1813 the family moved to Norwich, Vermont. There Joseph probably attended a common, or grammar, school for a brief period. He also received religious instruction and education in his home and likely engaged in the outdoor activities and games of his day. He was tall, athletic, and energetic, but was also contemplative and even-tempered. His mother said that Joseph “seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.”29 In Norwich, the Smiths began to farm on the property of Esquire Murdock. It was their last attempt at wresting a livelihood from the Vermont soil. Lucy wrote, “The first year our crops failed; yet, by selling fruit which grew on the place, we succeeded in obtaining bread for the family.”30 The second-year crops were also a dismal failure.
The Smiths’ third-year crops were frozen along with nearly everyone else’s in 1816, the infamous year without a summer. It was known as “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) had exploded in a violent eruption in mid-April of 1815. It was considered the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It ejected an estimated twenty-five cubic miles of volcanic debris. Dust blew into the stratosphere, obscuring the sun more severely than any volcano since 1600 and altering the weather pattern for an extended period.31
New England was hard hit. Four killing frosts struck between 6 June and 30 August, which destroyed all but the hardiest of crops. Unaware of the cause but discouraged by successive crop failures, hundreds of people left New England—among them the Smiths of Norwich, Vermont. During the decade of 1810–20, there was a major exodus from Vermont. More than sixty Vermont towns experienced population losses.32 Most Vermonters who left headed westward, stirred by newspaper advertisements of available lands in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, lands that were said to be “well-timbered, well-watered, easily accessible and undeniably fertile—all to be had on long-term payments for only two or three dollars an acre.”33
In 1816, Joseph, Sr., went to Palmyra, Ontario County, New York, in the company of a Mr. Howard. Before departing he called on his creditors and debtors to settle existing accounts, but some of them neglected to bring their accounts to the settlement. Evidently their claims against him were satisfied either by payment of cash or by the transfer of claims Joseph had against his debtors. Believing that all accounts were settled, he proceeded to Palmyra and purchased land. He then sent a communication to Lucy instructing her to stow their belongings on a wagon and prepare to move. Joseph arranged with Caleb Howard, cousin of the Mr. Howard who had traveled with him to Palmyra, to drive the team and bring his family to New York. Before Lucy Smith left to join her husband, however, additional creditors appeared and presented their uncancelled accounts for payment. Lucy described this event: “I concluded it would be more to our advantage to pay their unjust claims than to hazard a lawsuit. Therefore, by making considerable exertion, I raised the required sum, which was one hundred and fifty dollars, and liquidated the demand.” When well-meaning neighbors proposed to ease the burden by raising money through subscription, Lucy refused. “The idea of receiving assistance in such a way as this was indeed very repulsive to my feelings.”34
Accounts settled, Lucy and her eight children, ranging in age from the infant Don Carlos to seventeen-year-old Alvin, set out for New York with Caleb Howard. In South Royalton, Lucy’s mother, Lydia, was injured by an overturning wagon. When Lydia was taken to her son’s home in Tunbridge, mother and daughter tearfully exchanged good-byes. The aged Lydia admonished her daughter: “I beseech you to continue faithful in the service of God to the end of your days, that I may have the pleasure of embracing you in another and fairer world above.”35 Lydia died two years later in Royalton of the injuries she had received at that time.
As the Smith family continued their journey, it became apparent to Lucy that “Mr. Howard, our teamster, was an unprincipled and unfeeling wretch.”36 He spent the money Joseph, Sr., had paid him to gather the Smith family to New York on drinking and gambling.37 Joseph, Jr., at the time a boy of ten, later remembered that even though he had not yet fully recovered from his leg operation, Howard made him walk “in my weak state through the snow 40 miles per day for several days, during which time I suffered the most excruciating weariness & pain.”38
At Utica, several miles from their destination, Howard unloaded the Smith’s belongings and was about to leave with their team when Lucy confronted him: “Sir, I now forbid you touching the team, or driving it one step further.” The determined Lucy then reloaded the wagon and drove the team the rest of the way to Palmyra. She arrived with only two cents, but was “happy in once more having the society of my husband, and in throwing myself and children upon the care and affection of a tender companion and father.”39
The Smiths were but one of many New England families whose names are linked to the Restoration. Brigham Young, Joseph’s successor; Heber C. Kimball, faithful Apostle; and numerous other Church leaders had New England roots. Among their ancestors were men and women who sailed on the Mayflower or served in the American Revolution.40 These industrious and independent people who carved homes and societies out of the New England wilderness were remarkable people. They were patriotic, socially responsible, and religious. Joseph Smith had no need to apologize for his comparatively humble origins. His was an enduring moral legacy.
Many of the principles of Puritanism that shaped and molded Joseph’s environment complemented revealed principles and doctrines he would later receive as a prophet. When Joseph learned by revelation that “Thou shalt not be idle” (D&C 42:42), this confirmed the appropriateness of the frugal and resourceful New England life. When the Lord told him to seek learning out of the best books “even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), it reaffirmed the Puritan emphasis on education. When Joseph later promulgated the concept of an ideal theocratic society, he espoused a principle with which Puritan New England could readily identify.
But Joseph Smith was not bound by his New England heritage. In his lifetime he introduced gospel doctrines and ordinances that directly opposed his Puritan background, but exceeded any previous theological formulation of any other religious leader in their scope and clarity. For example, his concept of a personal and caring god opposed the Calvinistic idea of a stern god of justice. Revelations declaring the Godhead to be three separate and distinct personages directly contradicted traditional Calvinistic trinitarian theology.
But more than any environmental influence it was God who shaped the ideas of Joseph Smith. Indeed, it is part of Latter-day Saint theology that the Lord knew and prepared Joseph Smith in a previous sphere of existence to assume his pivotal role in restoring God’s church upon the earth. Joseph spoke of his foreordination when he said: “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that Grand Council.”41
Brigham Young said of Joseph Smith: “It was decreed in the counsels of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he should be the man, in the last dispensation of this world, to bring forth the word of God to the people, and receive the fulness of the keys and power of the Priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family and that blood as it has circulated from its fountain to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation.”42