“Joseph Smith, Sr.” New Era, Dec. 1973, 34–39
Honor thy father and mother is a strict requirement of many cultures. The youth who learns its meaning prepares for rich wisdom, seeking the best from all generations that preceded him. Joseph Smith sought wisdom of God (following James 1:4–5), but long before that he sought wisdom of religious teachers and particularly his parents. As Nephi did in the Book of Mormon, Joseph opens his earliest personal history by observing that he was born “of goodly parents, who spared no pains to instruct me in the Christian religion.”1 This and many other clues show that the Prophet grounded his life on the moral foundations of his parents. If one would know Joseph, Jr., he must understand the personality of Joseph, Sr.
In turn, Joseph Smith, Sr., is fully understood only against the background of his father. One could reach back indefinitely, as the New England lady who could not name her famous ancestors but reported that they had been descending for centuries. But continuing personal characteristics are realities in families. On an exterior level Joseph Smith, Sr., learned the trade of his father. Asael Smith is repeatedly named a cooper (a barrel maker) in New England deeds. That illuminates the life of Joseph Smith, Sr., when the son earned money coopering in the county prison after legal harassment upon refusing to deny the Book of Mormon. There are other personal continuities from father to son here, for handing down his best qualities was an open goal of the father of Joseph Smith, Sr.
The name of Asael Smith connotes honesty and responsibility. He in turn was the son of Samuel Smith, an influential man in Topsfield, Massachusetts, who exercised local leadership through the Revolutionary War. Samuel’s oldest son (another Samuel) had priority of inheritance of his father’s land, so Asael, the second son, learned a trade and purchased a farm in Derryfield (now Manchester), New Hampshire. There he was town clerk for seven years, and his handwriting can be easily seen in the microfilm of his town record book, which includes the personal notations of the births of most of his children. Asael faced crossroads at the death of his father, taking the path of personal sacrifice. Everyone ultimately faces such crossroads, and many apparent sacrifices are disguised opportunities for personal development through serving others. In Asael’s case, his brother came from Massachusetts to explain that the obligations against his father’s estate exceeded the assets, so he recommended settling the debts on a percentage basis. But Asael said simply that he would not allow his father’s name to go down as that of an insolvent debtor. So he and his brother exchanged farms, and Asael moved to Topsfield to attempt the impossible. The postwar depression decreed minimal profits on farming, but for seven years he applied his total resources to supporting his large family and reducing the debts of his father. Finally he sold the land to satisfy every creditor, and moved to Vermont with just about $100, enough to buy timbered land there and start over in a log cabin.
Through industry Asael and his oldest sons, one of whom was Joseph Smith, Sr., gained reasonable property in Vermont. But he considered his most valuable asset the wisdom of a well-spent life, and he gave this possession in equal shares to his wife and children—and all descendants after them. In 1799 Asael Smith penned “a few words of advice” to his family, an articulate 11-page document encouraging his family to follow his faith in God and in Christ by living as “scripture and sound reason” would dictate.2 His common sense stopped at giving superfluous advice on marriage, believing that “God hath created the persons for each other, and that nature will find its own.” Yet he stated simply what was central in his life. Speaking to his own sons and daughters about their children, he emphasized: “Make it your chiefest work to bring them up in the ways of virtue, that they may be useful in their generation.” Such a concern is intense within every sincere parent. Mormons belong to a church of millions actively handing down the best values of their ancestors by teaching virtue to new generations. Out of such a process came the founder of their faith.
The father of Joseph Smith, Sr., gave advice that reminds everyone of the importance of family gatherings. Talking of “yourselves within yourselves,” he expressed a “last request and charge” that his children would share “an undivided bond of love.” Asael felt strongly about the need of family association:
“Visit as you may each other. Comfort, counsel, relieve, succor, help and admonish one another. And while your mother lives, meet her if possible once every year. When she is dead, pitch on some other place … [I]f you cannot meet, send to and hear from each other yearly and oftener if you can. And when you have neither father nor mother left, be so many fathers and mothers to each other, so you shall understand the blessing mentioned in the 133 Psalm.” [Ps. 133]
Asael Smith’s scripture could well be the theme of any family association: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
The life of Joseph Smith, Sr., may be sketched through questions designed to bring him close. First, what did he look like? We have no known photographs or contemporary paintings. Bill Whitaker’s accompanying painting goes far to capture the personality of Joseph Smith, Sr., which combines power with sweet humility. But the artist’s use of family models only approximates appearance. Yet we can envision the first Joseph Smith through descriptions of those who knew him. William Henry Bigler reported: “He was like his son the Prophet, large but not fat, rather tall and big-boned and heavy muscled.”3 His grandson Joseph, III, implies that the first Joseph was taller than his Prophet-son: “In stature he had no superior in the family. Not one of his sons excelled him in physical appearance.”4 Thus the description of the official history is confirmed—a man of 200 pounds, six feet two in height, “very straight and remarkably well proportioned.”5
How did the senior Joseph make a living? The scope of his activities is very interesting: he was a farmer; he kept store; he ventured into the importing business; he taught school some winters; he had a cooper shop in New York where he sold other things. In the 1820 census there are three males in the Joseph Smith family: two of them are listed in agriculture and one in manufacturing. Joseph Smith, Sr., undoubtedly was running the cooper shop, manufacturing brooms and barrels. In New York the Smiths contracted for 100 acres of heavy timberland and made it into a farm. They had a sugar operation; Lucy Smith says (in an unpublished manuscript) that they harvested 1,000 pounds of sugar every spring. But wheat was their main crop. Of course, they burned the felled trees and sold the ash as potash. Some of their neighbors later said that they were lazy, but that is the wrong adjective. That just doesn’t fit the facts. William said that if you had wanted to find his brother Joseph, you couldn’t even talk to him unless you walked around and watched him while he rolled logs. So Joseph Smith, Sr., established industry as the environment of his sons.
What was the personality of Joseph Smith, Sr.? Heber C. Kimball said, “Father Smith was one of the most cheerful men I ever saw.”6 That means something, coming from a man well-known for his humor. Other contemporaries commented on his modesty and great faith. Look at Paul in the New Testament. This man could say that he was not worthy even to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church of God. (1 Cor. 15:9–10.) And if you placed a period and closed the book then, you would assume that Paul disqualified himself from further activity. But if you finish the thought, it says, “but I labored more abundantly than they all.” And there you have Joseph Smith, Sr. In addressing his family in Kirtland, he said that his inadequacies had caused him grief. But one must finish the thought: “The Lord has often visited me in visions and in dreams.”7 And that is a powerful statement, for his wife’s history describes seven of his dreams that were prophetic. There is no doubt that his family had the gift of spirituality.
What were the religious convictions of Joseph Smith, Sr.? They follow a sequence. He was first a seeker. He believed the Bible but not the theologies of his day. Like Asael Smith he was a universalist. William Smith said about Joseph Smith, Sr.: “My Father’s religious habits [were] strictly pious and moral.” William then described his father’s faith in the “universal restoration doctrine,” meaning that all men would be raised to salvation, not just a few: this “brought him into contact with the advocates of the doctrine of endless misery. The belief in the ultimate and final redemption of all mankind to heaven and happiness brought down upon my father … opprobrium.”8 But that didn’t matter to him because he stood for the love of God even if it brought the hate of man upon him. There is something very appealing in that. Some who heard him were deeply impressed with the senior Joseph’s conviction that all men could progress indefinitely. In 1860 Brigham Young recalled that Joseph Smith, Sr., the Patriarch, would typically say after giving a blessing: “If I have not promised blessings enough on your head and stated enough in the blessing I have given you, sit down and write every good thing you can think of and … your neighbor can think of, and put all into your blessing—and I will sign it, and promise the whole to you, if you will only live for it.”9 There is a man with unlimited faith in everyone.
What did he lack in his days when he believed that God would save all men? He lacked the knowledge of how. His wife related his final dream before the organization of the Church. A messenger came to him and said, “I … have always found you strictly honest in all your dealings. Your measures are always heaped … [T]here is but one thing which you lack in order to secure your salvation.”10 And Joseph, Sr., passionately sought this information in the dream. The messenger agreed to write it down. But suddenly the dream closed. And that was just before the Prophet received his visions, as Lucy Smith related the sequence. As we have seen, Joseph Smith, Sr., looked back to this period to say that “the Lord has often visited me in visions and in dreams.” He had intimations of the coming restoration of the gospel.
What is the record of Church service of Joseph Smith, Sr.? When he accepted the restored gospel, he found himself. Although previously skeptical of all organized religion, he believed at once in his son’s visions. He physically protected the Prophet during the translation of the plates and became a witness of the Book of Mormon after seeing and handling the plates. He then brought people into the Church as a missionary to the northeastern United States and to his family. In 1833 he was called as Patriarch to the Church. There were other offices: member of the first high council in 1834 and even counselor in the First Presidency for a short time in 1836. But Mormon diaries show that his greatest impact on his fellow Church members was through the blessings given as Patriarch. Many of those blessings were prophetic for Church members who came west. A young college student who attended blessing meetings in Kirtland, Ohio, was Lorenzo Snow, then a nonmember and later president of the Church. His sister, Eliza R. Snow, had induced him to come from Oberlin College to study with the competent Hebrew instructor employed by the Church for the missionaries. She had hoped that he would be exposed to Mormonism while studying Hebrew, and it was Joseph Smith, Sr., who impressed him most toward conversion. For Lorenzo felt his strong inspiration and discerned the appropriateness of instruction given to different people. In recalling his first impressions, Lorenzo Snow later said: “I looked at Father Smith and silently asked myself the question: Can that man be a deceiver? His every appearance answered in the negative. … I had never seen age so prepossessing.”11 His strong convictions attracted strong men to the Church. The most influential Smith of the second generation in Utah was George A., cousin of the Prophet and counselor to Brigham Young. His Uncle Joseph, the Patriarch, visited northern New York to meet initial ridicule of the Book of Mormon even from his family, most of whom were later converted. George A. Smith, then a bright and brash teenager, began to read the Book of Mormon but with the purpose of gathering devastating objections against it. The sequel was not as he expected. In his own words: “On the return of my Uncle Joseph, I undertook to argue with him upon the subject, but he so successfully removed my objections and enlightened my mind, that I have never since ceased to advocate its divine authority.”12 Other converts left records that show the unquestionable sincerity and deep convictions of Joseph Smith, Sr. His total loyalty to the restored church is itself a strong argument for the authenticity of the prophetic mission of his son.
This last issue makes a final question most significant. What was the home environment produced by Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith? Obviously the moral training of the Prophet came in the home of his parents, and his own integrity must be assessed in the light of his response to their early teachings. Reliable children generally come from homes of healthy love without weak permissiveness. Unquestionably the love of family ran deep in Joseph Smith, Sr. A simple illustration of him as “a tender husband and father.”13 Yet there was the discipline of hard work in the home combined with personal respect for differences. Joseph Smith’s brother William gave solid insights into the religious leadership of Joseph Smith, Sr.: “We always had family prayer since I can remember.” He described his father’s reaching for his glasses as the signal for prayer: “And if we did not notice it, mother would say, ‘William,’ or whoever was the negligent one, ‘get ready for prayer.’”14 The father led out in daily devotions, and the mother actively supported him. Joseph Smith, Sr., exercised quiet but firm initiative as the head of his household. The home of such parents is a valuable tool in assessing the sincerity of the young prophet who saw visions. It was the unpublicized integrity of Joseph Smith, Sr., that greatly influenced the career of Joseph Smith, Jr. No one can rightly deny that his family sought righteousness and the will of God. Through Joseph Smith, Jr., such a birthright has come to be a blessing far beyond his family.