We study, discuss, and acknowledge the contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith to the Church, but seldom focus specifically on his concern and contributions for youth. Today, with the Church’s programs for youth well known, it is interesting to note that the basic attitudes underlying those efforts are embodied in the Prophet’s relationships with young people of his day.
What did Joseph Smith do for youth? On one level, that question is easy to answer: he did for youth what he did for people of all ages. In his teachings he gave us a true understanding of the nature of God, of the power of prayer, of the vital reality of faith. Through him, the Lord restored to earth the power of the priesthood, the renewing ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the endowment of power and knowledge that is given in the temple. The Prophet gave us countless blessings that together constitute the gospel. And all of these—and much more—he gave to youth as well as to adults—and, most importantly, to the parents who were to train their youth.
But did he do anything especially for the youth of the Church? Before we can answer that, we must remind ourselves that there were no formalized youth programs in the Church of that day. There was then no concept of adolescence such as we now accept, either. Our present society has created a kind of “time out” stage for the teenage years that gives our youth a chance to gain education (mandatory attendance laws), to stay off the work force (child labor laws), to develop talents, to play, to date. But such was not the case 135 to 150 years ago. At that time physical development and the family’s need for laborers, not age or grade in school, determined which youths were treated as children and which were considered to be near-adults.
Depending on family circumstances, then, the term youth at that time might refer to a ten-year-old or a twenty-five-year-old. Fast-maturing youths moved into adult roles as soon as they could handle them, no matter what their ages.
Given this historical perspective of youth, we can now better assess Joseph Smith’s responses to adolescents. His attitudes and actions teach us much about how we should feel about young people. By examining contemporary diaries and Church records and later memoirs and historical studies we find that the Prophet Joseph had four fairly distinctive commitments regarding young people: (1) their need for adult love, respect, and guidance; (2) their need for a healthy balance of work and play; (3) their need for schooling; and (4) their need for religious training. By looking at each of these four, we’ll be able to get a good idea of how Joseph Smith viewed the youth of the Church.
Adult love, guidance, and respect. Joseph Smith loved and respected youth, whether infant or young adult. Perhaps they meant so much to him because death took five of his and Emma’s ten babies.
Examples of his high regard for youths are abundant. For example, when John Bellows and his father once visited the Prophet, the boy felt important because Joseph Smith paid “considerable attention to me” during the hour’s conversation between the two adults. William H. Walker told how the Prophet, upon learning that a house guest had insulted one of the hired girls at the Mansion House, ordered the man out without allowing him to pay his bill: “I want you to get out,” Joseph Smith reportedly ordered. “I want none of your money, or any other man’s of your stamp.” On another occasion Emma and Joseph took in some of the ten Walker children when Sister Walker died. “Every privilege was accorded us,” daughter Lucy Walker recorded. Joseph Smith treated her brother Lorin like an intimate and trusted friend: “He was ever by his side; arm in arm they walked and conversed freely on various subjects.” When the Prophet, as a house guest once with the Hess family, tired of studying, he diverted himself by playing with the children in their games around the house, including fourteen-year-old John W. Hess.1
While the Prophet respected young people, he expected them to behave respectably. Goudy E. Hogan, as a fourteen-year-old, sat behind Joseph Smith during a Sunday meeting in the grove near the Nauvoo Temple. He watched while the Prophet interrupted the elder who was speaking and told the congregation that “he wished some of those young men on the outside of the congregation that were making disturbance by talking loud to the young ladies would not do so but wait and go to their homes and speak to them by the consent of their parents.” Evidently the disturbance continued, so Joseph walked down through the congregation to talk to the youths. “There was no more disturbance in that meeting,” added Hogan.2
Healthy balance of work and play. Joseph Smith believed youths should learn both to work and to play, two activities he did well himself. Many stories circulated about the Prophet’s ability to do hard physical work. For example, while William Walker was in his early twenties he worked three years with Joseph. “I went into the hayfield with him, and he assisted in mowing grass, with a scythe, many a day, putting in ten hours good hard work,” he recalled.3
Historian T. Edgar Lyon once retold a story he heard as a boy from an “Old Nauvooer” living then in his ward. This old man said that as a boy he and another teenager got into mischief at a nearby farm. The irate farmer had them arrested. The judge sentenced them to jail. The boy’s father asked Joseph Smith to intercede. The Prophet, with memories of his own bitter jail experiences still fresh, asked the judge to release the boys into his custody for six months. Joseph then put the two boys to work hauling stone chips and gravel to improve Nauvoo’s pocked streets. The boys received fifty cents a day, out of which they paid the farmer for damages and the court for trial costs. This brother confessed that “that was the greatest training I ever had not to wantonly or willfully destroy property of another,” and that “it was the best training to work consistently and earn an honest day’s pay I ever had.”4
That Joseph Smith liked to pull sticks, wrestle, play baseball, swim, and hunt is generally well known. William Allred, who played ball with Joseph many times, recalled an instance when someone criticized the Prophet for indulging in play. To answer the criticism Joseph told a parable about a prophet and a hunter—clearly explaining his own philosophy about the relationship of play to work. As the story goes, a certain prophet sat under a tree “amusing himself in some way.” Along came a hunter and reproved him. The prophet asked the hunter if he always kept his hunting bow strung up. “Oh no,” said he.
“Because it would lose its elasticity.”
“It is just so with my mind,” stated the prophet; “I do not want it strung up all the time.”5
Schooling. Despite limited schooling Joseph Smith loved to study and learn. In part he was influenced by schoolteacher associates. His father once taught school. His maternal grandmother, a schoolteacher, taught his mother the rudiments of “sums, ‘write-o-hand’ and spelling.” Joseph’s wife was a schoolteacher, “a woman of liberal culture and insistent on education.”6 And his primary scribe during the translating of the Book of Mormon was schoolteacher Oliver Cowdery.
Joseph also sought to obey the many revelations which called for educated Saints. The Lord said to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning” (D&C 88:118); and to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). Things of heaven and earth, astronomy, geology, geography, history, politics, and current events must also be understood (see D&C 88:77–80).
But Joseph Smith found that too many converts were poorly educated like himself. Many were like Harrison Burgess, who “lived with my parents until upwards of fourteen years of age, and, being the eldest of my father’s family, I was kept constantly at work and had but little opportunity of acquiring an education.”7 So, during an era of parochial and private schools and, in some places, of no schools, of privately hired teachers, and of extremely few public schools, Joseph Smith became an educational reformer well in advance of his times.
Schools sprang up in nearly every large Latter-day Saint settlement. At Kirtland, along with the School of the Prophets, Joseph Smith set up a Kirtland High School, attended at one point by 140 “small children and adolescents.” Subjects taught included math, geography, grammar, writing, reading, and languages. At the close of each term students had to pass an examination held before the trustees—including the First Presidency. Also at Kirtland Eliza R. Snow opened a school for young women, one of a few private schools started there.8 In Missouri, Mormons started the first schools ever held in Jackson County.
At Nauvoo, the city charter established a comprehensive school system—from common schools in each ward for children, to seminary (high school) work for youths, to a university for older youths and adults. Historians have identified dozens of men and women who served as teachers at Nauvoo. Open to anyone wishing an education, the system was financed by public taxation—a revolutionary concept for that day.
Religious Training. Joseph Smith fully supported the “law unto the inhabitants of Zion” (D&C 68:25–28) that the responsibility for religious training of children rested squarely upon the shoulders of parents. But he also knew that the Church must reinforce parents in this effort. LDS schools helped by teaching reading and writing out of the scriptures. So did published scriptures and public sermons that advocated Christian principles, including marriage as an expected goal for youths to achieve. Records show that youths did attend Sunday worship meetings and some private Sunday evening prayer meetings and received good teachings. Goudy Hogan, when fourteen years old, “very frequently went with my Father from where we lived 8 miles to Nauvoo to meeting and back home the same day on foot.” He added that he “was very anxious to go to meeting and listen to what the servants of the Lord had to say.” Mary Alice Cannon, another fourteen-year-old, “many times” heard the Prophet preach.9
American towns in that day set up military companies for their young men, and Nauvoo followed suit. Boys in the junior Nauvoo Legion practiced basic military maneuvers along with precision marching and riding. Though it was not a very religious experience per se, it still provided boys with a sense of belonging to a Church unit and associating with fellow LDS youths and with Church leaders.
Joseph Smith gave enthusiastic support to a “Young Gentlemen’s and Young Ladies Relief Society of Nauvoo,” which developed under Heber C. Kimball’s guiding hand. It began simply as a small and casual chit-chat gathering. But week by week more youth came and bigger and bigger meeting places were arranged. Once when the group met in the large room above the Prophet’s store, he came to speak to them. He praised Elder Kimball for helping organize this “good and glorious work,” complimented the youth on their good conduct, “and taught them how to behave in all places, explained to them their duties, and advised them to organize themselves into a society for the relief of the poor.” Specifically, he asked them to fund and then build a house for a brother who was lame. In response, the youth drew up a constitution, elected officers, called monthly meetings, and opened their membership to anyone under age thirty in Nauvoo, LDS or not, including young men and “the tender, lovely and beautiful females of our city.”10
Young women also attended the adult Relief Society. A year earlier, at the first meeting of the Relief Society, three of the twenty sisters in attendance were teenagers.
Priesthood work at that time generally did not involve most of the boys and young men of the Church. Maturity, not age, was the prerequisite. However, we can identify many young men who served the Church well in official callings. Orson Pratt became a missionary at age nineteen (see D&C 34). Lyman Johnson, later a young member of the Quorum of the Twelve, served a mission when he was twenty. George A. Smith, baptized at fifteen, marched in Zion’s Camp and later was ordained a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy at eighteen. Peter Whitmer, Jr., became one of the Eight Witnesses at nineteen. Daniel Tyler, not quite eighteen, filled a mission by himself when his older companion failed to show up. Joseph’s younger brother Don Carlos received the priesthood at age fourteen, filled a mission that year, and at nineteen became a high priests quorum president. Erastus Snow, baptized at fourteen, preached extensively in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania before he was nineteen. At age nineteen he preached with Joseph at a Far West meeting. Harrison Burgess, eighteen, filled a mission to Vermont. William F. Cahoon, a seventeen-year-old ordained teacher, home taught Joseph Smith’s family.
While the Prophet’s public sermons, the few of which we have record, say little about young people, other records show that he did not ignore youths. He loved them. He associated with them. He taught them. He set up schools for them. He encouraged youth improvement associations started by others. His example speaks loudly.