Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Families, Heaven Grew Over Time

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer


Joseph and Emma with their first son, Alvin, who passed away shortly after birth. Painting by Liz Lemon Swindle.

Article Highlights

  • Tragedies in Joseph’s life played a role in receiving revelation about the doctrine of the family.
  • Joseph often received modern-day revelation by asking questions.
  • The Lord revealed to Joseph doctrines and principles line upon line, when the time was right.

Over the course of the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith, his understanding of families and heaven “unfolded line upon line, sometimes growing out of a yearning for lost loved ones,” two presenters at the Mormon History Association Conference said in a paper given June 10.

Barbara Morgan Gardner and R. Devan Jensen of the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University authored the paper, which traced the Prophet’s understanding over his lifetime through the following conditions:

  • Revelation preceded personal tragedy and became more meaningful through that tragedy.
  • As Joseph pleaded for understanding of how to reunite with lost loved ones, he gained greater understanding of salvation’s dependence on being sealed or welded together into an eternal family chain.
  • He eventually learned that the linking needed to be both vertical (for his own family) and horizontal (among the human family).

Joseph married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827, and, at the time of their marriage, there was no apparent indication of marriage lasting beyond the grave, the authors noted.

On June 15, 1828, their baby Alvin was born and died in Harmony, Pennsylvania, during the time that the 116 pages given to Martin Harris were lost, events that caused intense soul-searching. The following year, as the Book of Mormon translation resumed, Joseph became aware of the passage in Moroni 8:12–18, declaring that little children are alive in Christ and need no baptism.

“This doctrine challenged the authoritarian stance of most organized churches regarding the practice of infant baptism,” the authors noted.

The Smiths would lose other children to death in ensuing years.

In May 1829 the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored, but the sealing keys had not yet been revealed.

In November to December of 1830, Joseph translated the sixth chapter of the book of Moses, learning of the priesthood in regard to family and a book of remembrance. Then the Saints were commanded to gather at “the Ohio,” where a house of the Lord would be built and they would be endowed with power from on high, the authors noted.

“A watershed moment came in February 1832, when Joseph and Sidney Rigdon learned that heaven consisted of many kingdoms. They learned that salvation came through the Atonement of Jesus Christ by way of ordinances such as baptism and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost and that they could become kings and priests receiving a fulness of the Father’s glory. Thus, salvation was bound to saving ordinances, but only for those who were accountable.”

In April 1836, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received from Elijah the sealing keys that would bind families together. This painting by Dan Lewis is titled Elijah Appearing in the Kirtland Temple. Image by Dan Lewis.

Another key event, the authors declared, came in April 1836, when Joseph and Oliver saw the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ and received from Elijah the sealing keys that would bind families together.

In 1839, after moving to Nauvoo, he introduced various doctrines and practices to accomplish Malachi’s promise to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to their fathers.”

“Just as personal tragedy led Joseph Smith to receive his revelations on the family, his nephew Joseph F. Smith later received extended insight into the eternal nature of family and heaven,” the authors wrote. “These revelations also came in the context of personal loss among family, friends, and the greater society in which he was involved. These losses included his father, Hyrum, and Uncle Joseph, whom he lost as a young boy in 1846; his mother, whom he lost as a teenager; his daughter Mercy Josephine, who passed away as he started his early apostleship in 1870; and his son Hyrum, a 45-year-old Apostle who passed away only months previous to the revelation in January of 1918. These deaths, in the context of millions of lives lost during World War I and the worldwide pandemic of 1918, clearly influenced his questions. Thus, President Joseph F. Smith continued the prophetic pattern of learning line upon line about families and heaven.”