“Lucy Mack Smith,” New Era, Dec. 1973, 34–39
Young Jesus “was subject” to his parents. (Luke 2:51.) Such cooperativeness signals great character; and his home increased his social abilities and reverence for God. Joseph Smith’s home left similar marks upon him. Parents’ full influence cannot operate without their children’s willing consent, so it is important to realize that his mother considered Joseph, Jr., “a remarkably quiet, well-disposed child.”1 In the mainstream of family life he absorbed the basic traditions of his family. His father laid hands on his 28-year-old son, then president of the Church, and looked back on his growing years in the household of Joseph Smith, Sr., and wife Lucy Mack Smith: “Thou has been an obedient son. The commands of thy father, and the reproofs of thy mother, thou has respected and obeyed.”2
This suggests concerned and strong leadership from these parents. A grandson had precisely that impression of the Prophet’s mother: “There never was a more earnest and social body in the Smith family than Grandma Smith.”3 There are physical sketches of the aged Lucy Mack Smith, but they are a hollow shell without knowing the vital interior convictions that sustained her through a demanding life of 80 years. These can best be seen by reading her biography of her family, which is virtually her own autobiography.4 Sometimes depicted as ignorant in unsympathetic literature, Lucy writes with the power and clarity of a bright mind. Although her history has been generally understood as dictated to and polished by others, over 200 pages of her handwritten manuscript exist in clear, legible writing with highly accurate spelling. The Prophet’s mother was well educated and possessed a creative mind, practiced in articulate expression.
Lucy Smith’s written self-portrait is one of unconquerable faith, and her spiritual strength was certainly rooted in the practical determination of her father and the profound convictions of her mother. Significantly, the mother of the Prophet begins her story with the exploits of her father, Solomon Mack, whose adventures in colonial wars make exciting reading. At an early age he was a man of decision, boldness, and awareness of his fellowmen. His exploits included saving himself and a companion by charging a party of Indians with no weapon but nerve—and saving a companion during an ambush when in full retreat and risking his own life. His lifetime of business ventures after that was just as heroic, for his enterprise built back financial stability after continued reverses. He was in turn a land developer, farmer, shipper, contractor, miller, privateer, and schooner owner, finally retiring to his Vermont farm to find God in answers to his prayers for relief from physical and spiritual agony. Something of the home that trained Lucy comes out in his injunction to parents to bring their children up with consistency: “Never bid them to do anything that is out of their power, nor promise them only what you mean to fulfil. Set good examples in word, deed, and action.”5
Solomon Mack’s writings show a love of family, including his wife, Lydia Gates. As the youngest of Lydia’s children, the Prophet’s mother received the full force of what Solomon Mack called her “pious and devotional character.”6 Solomon also paid a high tribute to Lydia for teaching prayer and love in daily family worship. Lucy confirms this by reporting her mother’s parting instructions to “continue faithful in the exercise of every religious duty.” Thus the Prophet’s mother was trained in a home where the children learned, in their father’s phrase, “piety, gentleness, and reflection.”
But Lucy Mack was no carbon-copy Christian. Although knowing God through scriptures and prayerful communion, she doubted the religions that claimed to speak for him. Early in marriage she showed double qualities of devotion and independence. A severe respiratory infection brought a high fever, and Lucy’s life hung in the balance. Weakened and semi-conscious, she was informed by her shaken husband that the doctors expected her to die. But that night powerful prayers stirred within her weakened frame. She sought life in order to “bring up my children, and be a comfort to my husband.” Making her “solemn covenant” with God, she heard a voice assuring her (in scriptural language), “seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Her solid recovery began from that hour, as she vigorously assured her watching mother that “the Lord will let me live.”7
After this miraculous healing, Lucy intensely sought a church where she could express her deep commitment. But she found trivia and superficiality instead of answers. Nevertheless, she knew that she could rely on “Jesus and his disciples for my guide,” so she rested her faith on the Bible rather than any church. Since the Bible commanded baptism, she found “a minister who was willing to baptize me, and leave me free in regard to joining any religious denomination.”8 The Prophet’s mother had surrendered her will to God, but to no man, even differing with her husband religiously as she investigated Methodism and later became a Presbyterian. Only after her son’s visions was the family religiously united.
But the meaning of honesty was agreed on from the beginning of the marriage of Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith, Sr. They met after she came to Tunbridge, Vermont, to help the family of her brother Stephen, a well-to-do, enterprising landowner and merchant. He and his business partner, John Mudget, gave Lucy $1,000 as a wedding present, an amount that she frugally saved for years. Her husband had an asset of equal value in his share of his father’s farm, but the time came when both gave their possessions to preserve their honor. Some eight years after their marriage they operated a country store and also invested in exports to China. But profits of their China venture were dishonestly kept from them, and hundreds of dollars of store accounts were uncollectible from the neighbors. Nevertheless, they still owed Boston wholesalers for the goods that they had sold. So Lucy gave her dowry, and Joseph, Sr., sold his interest in the farm in order to pay nearly $2,000 owed their suppliers. It would have been all too easy to move away with debts unpaid, but the Smiths kept their word. Thus the children raised in their home were given high ideals of trustworthiness.
Driven by crop failures and attracted by western opportunity, the family moved to western New York when the Prophet was about ten. Joseph, Sr., had gone on ahead to investigate the new situation; he then sent for the family. Mother Smith displayed considerable independence and ability in settling New England debts and traveling west. But she treasured her role as mother, as she shows in her words about rejoining her companion in Palmyra: “The joy I felt in throwing myself and my children upon the care and affection of a tender husband and father doubly paid me for all I had suffered.”9 Now the family started over from nothing, meeting daily expenses, acquiring house hold furnishings, and paying install ments on a farm that they soon contracted for. In this Lucy not only carried her load as wife and mother of eight but helped produce family income through a thriving business of making and decorating oilcloth, table coverings. One senses in her the self-reliance of her father as she tells of assisting the family through her initiative after losing most of her personal possessions in the expense of moving west. Her description of their new log cabin implies much about the quality of family life within its walls: “A snug, comfortable though humble habitation, built and neatly furnished by our own industry.”10
Lucy Smith’s later life is more familiar, since her story merges with the story of the Church. In her history one glimpses the three witnesses returning to report their joyous experience of seeing the angel and plates, the move to Ohio and the faith of the Saints in building a new city and their first temple, her move to Missouri and miraculous healing after contracting severe infection after days traveling in the rain, the trauma of parting with loved ones and loss of possessions in the Missouri persecutions, and the settlement in peace in Illinois, to be her home until death. But if Illinois gave new security for the Mormon people, it also brought personal tragedy, for Lucy’s husband died in 1840, followed the next year by her tall, handsome son Don Carlos. In three more years she stood by the bullet-torn bodies of Joseph and Hyrum and soon after grieved over Samuel, weakened or injured by his ride to join his brothers at Carthage. The close ties of this family made these partings doubly hard, but Lucy knew that God gives and takes away. During inexpressible grief she could, nevertheless, feel the peace that the next life offers, virtually hearing her sons say, “We have overcome the world by love … [O]urs is an eternal triumph.”11
Joseph’s mother stayed in the Nauvoo area rather than going west, for her remaining family was there, including three daughters. “Here in this city lay my dead,” she explained in an impromptu 1845 talk, “my husband and my children.”12 But her interest remained lively in the work of the western Saints. Enoch Tripp visited her in 1855, the year before her death. They had been close friends when he taught school in Nauvoo. Finding her very feeble. Enoch stepped to her bedside and identified himself: “She arose in her bed and, placing her arms around my neck, kissed me, exclaiming, ‘I can now die in peace, since I have beheld your face from the vallies of the mountains.’” After inquiring after her Utah friends, she remarked that she was on the verge of meeting “with her beloved ones beyond the veil.” As he left, Enoch received a “farewell blessing from this great mother in Israel.”13
For a quarter of a century Lucy was familiarly known as “Mother Smith” to Church members, a mark of esteem in her greatest calling. Consistently warm to her loved ones and hospitable to all, her innate generosity drew gratitude from her son Joseph: “Blessed is my mother, for her soul is ever fill[ed] with benevolence and philanthropy.”14 Though Joseph Smith, Jr., was nurtured in the warmth of intense love, it was supplemented with express training in industry, intellectual growth, and religion. In her 1845 speech to the Church, Lucy Smith listed the ingredients of her home, an atmosphere of “love, goodness and kindness,” where “the fear and love of God” were taught. She undoubtedly spoke indirectly of the Prophet’s upbringing when she advised parents to give their children “books and work to keep them from idleness.” And she spoke indirectly of herself when she called parents “accountable for their children’s conduct” and advised them “never to do in secret what they would not do in the presence of millions.”15
Lucy Smith’s picture of early home life is verified by the youngest son William who vividly remembered her influence in his boyhood: “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 soul’s salvation.”16
Joseph Smith’s lifelong sensitiveness to his mother is a mark of her powerful influence in molding his early character. He could call her “one of the noblest and the best of all women” for her sacrifices and the excellence of her example. Careful study shows that both parents labored to teach high ideals to their children. The Prophet said so at the peak of his career: “Words and language are inadequate to express the gratitude that I owe to God for having given me so honorable a parentage.”17 This comment tells much about the parents but also much about Joseph Smith himself. They were God-fearing and strictly honest, and he loved them because he treasured their characteristics in his own life. Such parents furnish profound insights into the true character of their son who proclaimed revelations from God.