The most telling question in the environment of young Joseph Smith, Jr., is the quality of his own home life. This is known in some detail through the writings and speeches of Joseph himself, his parents, and his brothers and sisters who recorded their early experiences. However, one can only understand these glimpses into the home life of the Prophet by perceiving the genuineness of the personalities of his parents. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, was a blend of the dominant characteristics of her parents; she was vital, courageous, and resourceful, and, at the same time, profoundly dependent upon God and notoriously generous to others. The story of her own religious search is an illuminating insight into her character.
Taught by her mother “to fear God and walk uprightly before him,” 1 Lucy Mack Smith listened carefully to ministers, prayed, and read the Bible. But the hard common sense of her culture and of her father, Solomon Mack, stood squarely in the way of an easy conversion. Since the churches contradicted each other and were unlike Christ’s church as described in the Bible, she doubted the truth of any. She relates that she found God through prayer when her destiny hung in the balance. She pleaded solemnly for life with a covenant to serve God and her loved ones “to the best of my abilities”; she was answered with a voice of assurance that her prayer had been heard, and she became well from that moment. 2
Mother Smith was then baptized on the express condition that she was not obligated to any denomination, for her faith was only in the Lord and not in chaotic Christianity: “I therefore determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and his disciples for my guide, to endeavour to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away.” 3 Developing successive interests in Methodism and Presbyterianism, Lucy Mack Smith from her youth read the scriptures and prayed, which solidly sustained her in every major crisis in her life.
The Prophet’s mother actively led her children to study the Bible and seriously investigate the major Protestant faiths. Her son William remembered generally her teaching of the family when Joseph was in his later teens:
“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. … She prevailed on us to attend the meetings, and almost the whole family became interested in the matter, and seekers after truth.” 4
The intense personal quality of Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography opens her soul to everyone willing to read. Not only is her religion displayed, but also her independence, industry, practicality, occasional humor, love of people, and the intense honesty that was her heritage. No deceiver was raised by this influence. In later years she publicly stated her governing principles for home life. The published account reads:
“She was the mother of eleven children, seven of whom were boys. She raised them in the fear and love of God, and never was there a more obedient family. She warned parents that they were accountable for their children’s conduct; advised them to give them books and work to keep them from idleness, and never to do in secret, what they would not do in the presence of millions.” 5
This “obedient family” of little idleness was in part created by her husband, Joseph Smith, Sr. He was as religious as she, though even more skeptical of the traditional churches. Like his father, he was a devout believer but a religious dissenter. In fact, Joseph Smith, Sr., was characterized by his son William as openly espousing Grandfather Asael Smith’s Universalism:
“My father’s religious habits [were] strictly pious and moral. His faith in the universal restoration doctrine, however, often brought him in 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. …” 6
Joseph Smith, Sr., sought and found peace with his God. His wife mentions seven impressive dreams that came to him as a mature man. These reveal his inner treasuring of the “pure love of God” and of forgiveness through “the merits of Jesus.” One is similar to the dreams of Joseph in Egypt, showing others giving honor to him. These dreams did not reveal how this would come about. In the first he continued seeking until he found a box, “the contents of which, if you eat thereof, will make you wise and give unto you wisdom and understanding.” 7
His seventh dream came in 1819, just before his son’s First Vision, and revealed a heavenly messenger’s pleasure that he had always found Joseph Smith, Sr., “strictly honest in all your dealings.” The messenger also indicated that this was his final visit and that “there is but one thing which you lack, in order to secure your salvation.” Yet the Prophet’s father woke before learning what he lacked. 8 He obviously sought knowledge of God beyond the power of the churches of the day to offer.
Not only did Joseph Smith, Sr., personally experience God’s love, which he believed would be offered to all, but he actually was a genuinely loving person. Proverbially kind and mild in Latter-day Saint records, he was characterized by his wife as “an affectionate companion and tender father.” 9 Heber C. Kimball knew him as well as anyone outside the immediate family and spontaneously commented, “Father Smith was one of the most cheerful men I ever saw, and he was [as] harmless as a child.” 10 Not that such guilelessness was born of weakness. From family knowledge George A. Smith reported that Joseph Smith, Sr., was “famed as a wrestler” when a young man. From personal knowledge he supplied the physical dimensions to complete the picture: “He was six feet, two inches high, was very straight, and remarkably well proportioned. His ordinary weight was about two hundred pounds, and he was very strong and active.” 11
Yet the main impression conveyed by the father to the son was “an exalted and virtuous mind” to match this towering frame. Joseph Smith, Jr., was obviously influenced greatly by his father’s gentle power and said of him, “he never did a mean act, that might be said was ungenerous in his life, to my knowledge.” 12
Although Joseph Smith, Sr., had earlier been a merchant and a teacher, the daily necessities of farming and day-laboring created the practical environment of the Smith home in the years between the Prophet’s childhood and his marriage. Reliability was taught by a father working shoulder to shoulder with his sons in the never-ending struggle to convert dense forest into fields, to plant and harvest wheat, to tap maple trees and manufacture sugar, to make baskets, barrels, and brooms for supplementary income, to build homes and utility structures on land not previously inhabited. Constant labor and obedience were daily necessities in the young Prophet’s home. In the unstudied words of the Prophet’s brother, their pioneer economy “made an imperative demand upon every energy, nerve, or member of the family for both economy and labor, which this demand had to be met with the strictest kind of industry. …” 13
In the Smith home there were tenderness, family unity, and spirituality. If the family was not united on a particular church, the parents set the tone of “strict piety.” The latter phrase significantly comes from younger brother William, who was the least susceptible to the God-fearing attitudes predominant in his family. He later recalled family devotions in detail:
“[We] always had family prayer since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, … and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, and if we did not notice it, mother would say, ‘William,’ or whoever was the negligent one, ‘get ready for prayer.’ After the prayer we had a song we would sing.” 14
Religious music in this home was not limited to a single hymn. William indicated that his father taught him “Old Hundred,” the doxology of praise for God. William remembered “prayers, both night and morning,” and stressed that nightly prayers were regularly accompanied by a hymn. A favorite evening stanza of his father was given by William:
This was a part of regular family worship: “Again and again was this hymn sung while upon the bending knees. My parents, father and mother, poured out their souls to God, the donor of all blessings, to keep and guard their children, and keep them from sin and from all evil works.” 15
This intimate picture is consistent with the constant prayerfulness that Lucy Mack Smith describes as being a part of herself and her husband, both of whom united “upon our knees by the bedside” of critically ill Sophronia about 1812. 16 A decade later, when the Book of Mormon was about to come forth, the family’s “diligence in prayer and supplication to God” were marked, yet this was but an extension of the normal spirituality of that home. 17
In sum, the environment in which Joseph Smith’s character was formed was unquestionably idealistic and deeply religious. It is therefore a serious mistake not to take Joseph Smith seriously. He struggled with mind and soul to gain answers to questions that were a lifelong concern to parents and both grandfathers. In independent fashion, parents and grandfathers solved the perplexing question of which form of Christianity to believe. Their sincerity is convincing and their solutions reasonable. In the case of their descendant Joseph Smith, Jr., is there any less reason to accept either the sincerity of his religious quest or the actuality of his own answer? After all, blunt Yankee honesty was also his heritage.
Dr. Anderson is professor of history and religion at Brigham Young University and author of numerous articles on the New Testament and the history of the Church. He is the author of a new book, Joseph Smith’s New England Background, to be published in September. He teaches Sunday School in the Pleasant View First Ward, Sharon East Stake.
Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith (Liverpool, 1853), p. 36; also cit. Preston Nibley (ed.) History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City, 1945), p. 30.
Ibid., p. 47; also cit. Nibley, p. 34.
William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa, 1883), p. 6.
Lucy Mack Smith, conference address, October 8, 1845, Times and Seasons, vol. 6 (1845), p. 1014.
William Smith, Notes on Chamber’s Encyclopedia; also cit. typescript, p. 18. Some modifications have been made in this and other quotations in respect to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
Lucy Mack Smith, Sketches, p. 57; also cit. Nibley, p. 47.
Ibid., p. 74; also cit. Nibley, p. 68.
Ibid., p. 162; also cit. Nibley, p. 182. Cf. firsthand comments about Joseph Smith, Sr., in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Smiths Who Handled the Plates,” Improvement Era, August 1969, pp. 29–30.
Heber C. Kimball, Sermon of February 17, 1861, Journal of Discourses, vol. 8 (1861), p. 351.
B. H. Roberts (ed.), History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1932), vol. 7, p. 191. (Commonly called Documentary History of the Church.)
DHC, vol. 5, pp. 125–26.
William Smith, Notes; also cit. typescript, pp. 17–18.
J. W. Peterson, “William B. Smith’s Last Statement,” Zion’s Ensign, vol. 5 (1894), no. 3, p. 6.
William Smith, Notes; also cit. typescript, p. 18.
Lucy Mack Smith, Sketches, p. 60; also cit. Nibley, p. 52.
Ibid., p. 86; also cit. Nibley, p. 85.