On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hyrum Smith, martyr and brother of the Prophet Joseph, we have the opportunity to look back at his life. In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith on 19 January 1841 in Nauvoo, Illinois, Hyrum was promised that his name would be held “in honorable remembrance from generation to generation, forever and ever.”1
Today more than 10 million Latter-day Saints hold his name in high esteem, but details of his personality and life of service are largely unknown. This is in part because of the way Hyrum selflessly supported the Prophet Joseph Smith, his younger brother. During his life Hyrum played a key role in the publication of the Book of Mormon and in the building of the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples. He fulfilled a number of missions, and he shouldered administrative responsibilities. Moreover, he blessed the lives of others with his compassion and forgiveness. And in the end, when he sealed his testimony with his blood in Carthage, he served as the vital second witness of the Restoration.
What follows is a window on the life of Hyrum Smith to help us see the kind of man he was and understand what he represents for Latter-day Saints today.
Hyrum’s greatest contribution to the Restoration may have been his support of Joseph, which immeasurably aided the Prophet’s ability to carry out his work. Joseph counted on Hyrum in virtually every important endeavor.
Born at Tunbridge, Vermont, on 9 February 1800, Hyrum was the third of 11 children (the first of whom died at birth) of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith; Joseph Smith Jr. was the fifth.2 For the most part, Hyrum and Joseph grew up the same as most farm boys during the early part of the 19th century. The relationship forged between them during their childhood proved to be great. Certainly there were many events that bonded Hyrum and Joseph together, but none stronger than one in 1812. When typhus fever swept the area, several members of the Smith family were stricken, including seven-year-old Joseph.
“His leg soon began to swell and he continued to suffer the greatest agony for the space of two weeks,” his mother wrote. “Hyrum, who was rather remarkable for his tenderness and sympathy, now desired that he might take my place. As he was a good, trusty boy, we let him do so, and, in order to make the task as easy for him as possible, we laid Joseph upon a low bed and Hyrum sat beside him, almost day and night for some considerable length of time, holding the affected part of his leg in his hands and pressing it between them, so that his afflicted brother might be enabled to endure the pain.”3 Surely Hyrum’s feelings of loyalty and guardianship toward Joseph were strengthened during this time.
In the fall of 1823, Hyrum’s feelings of responsibility toward his family intensified when Alvin, the eldest living child, died. As Alvin was dying, he said to 23-year-old Hyrum, the next to oldest, “I have done all I could to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to finish the house and take care of them in their old age.”4 Now Hyrum’s role in the family was firmly established.
On 9 December 1834, Joseph Smith Sr. underscored Hyrum’s success in this role in his patriarchal blessing: “Thou hast toiled hard and labored much for the good of thy father’s family: thou hast been a stay many times to them, and by thy diligence they have often been sustained.”5
In the aftermath of Alvin’s death, Hyrum finished building the white frame house for his parents and continued to assist Joseph. In 1820 Hyrum had been among the first who believed and supported Joseph after the First Vision. When Joseph received the golden plates, it was Hyrum who provided the wooden box for their storage and protection. In 1829 Hyrum became one of the Eight Witnesses, who, after leafing through the plates and seeing the engravings thereon, testified of their reality.6
Once the plates were translated, the Prophet entrusted Hyrum with the printer’s copy of the manuscript. Throughout the publication process, it was Hyrum, usually accompanied by Oliver Cowdery, who delivered pages to the typesetter and retrieved them daily. This pattern of Hyrum’s serving as Joseph’s facilitator was repeated throughout their lives, providing example and leadership for those who carried out the daily tasks of building the kingdom.
In the midst of these events, Hyrum courted Jerusha Barden, whom Lucy Mack Smith described as “one of the most excellent of women.”7 They married on 2 November 1826 in Manchester, New York. Although Hyrum had learned barrel making from his father, he supported his family as a farmer and laborer. He and Jerusha eventually became the parents of six children, two of whom died young.
When the Church was organized on 6 April 1830, Hyrum, at age 30, was the eldest of the six who signed the articles of incorporation. Soon after, Hyrum was sent to Colesville, New York, to preside over one of the first branches of the Church. He and Jerusha and their young family lived with the Newell Knight family, and according to Brother Knight, “most of [Hyrum’s] time, as also that of my own, was spent … preaching the gospel wherever we could find any who would listen.”8
Hyrum was a persuasive missionary, often visiting communities near his home, but he also traveled to the eastern seaboard and to the South. In the summer of 1831, Hyrum and his companion John Murdock were two of more than a dozen pairs of missionaries called to travel, each by a different route to Missouri and back (nearly 1,000 miles each way), preaching along the way.9
Early in June 1833, the First Presidency—Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams—saw the Kirtland Temple in vision. Its construction became a priority.10 Hyrum set the work in motion by taking his scythe and clearing weeds from the temple site. Two days later he and Reynolds Cahoon began digging the foundation. As a member of the committee to oversee Kirtland Temple construction, Hyrum was involved at every stage of the building, dedication, and use of the first temple of this dispensation.
When Zion’s Camp was organized in 1834, Hyrum and Lyman Wight recruited and led a contingent of Saints from Michigan to Missouri. Then in December 1834 Hyrum became an Assistant President of the Church, serving under the direction of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams.11 Thereafter, he managed important administrative duties for the Church in Kirtland.
Ever a peacemaker, Hyrum, during this time period, counseled often with his volatile younger brother William, who struggled with his role in the Church and his relationship with Joseph. Unfortunately, William eventually left the Church in spite of Hyrum’s efforts.
Hyrum became an active member of the First Presidency with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in 1837, a time of dissension and apostasy in Kirtland. Serious economic problems following the fall of the Kirtland Safety Society, an unchartered bank, rocked the community. Most of the Saints had enough faith to weather this crisis, but a number of leaders did not. For them a central issue was not the bank failure but a broader question: Should a religious leader be involved in civic or economic affairs? To Protestant America of that day, the answer was a resounding no. But for those who desired Kirtland to become a different kind of community, the answer was a resounding yes. Confrontation between the two irreconcilable views was unavoidable.
At the darkest hour in summer 1837, some of the brethren met in the temple fasting and praying for the Prophet. Soon after, the Saints gathered and Hyrum conducted the Sunday meeting. “He asked us if we did not then feel as humble as little children,” wrote newly baptized Mary Fielding, who had recently arrived in Kirtland from Canada. “He assured us that he for one did. … He was then affected to tears and … had to sit down for a short time to give vent to his feelings, after which he again arose and begged the congregation to excuse his weakness. Before he concluded, he seemed to be filled with [the] Spirit and power of God.”12
As he often did, Hyrum followed up Joseph’s pronouncements and helped bring them to pass. In mid-1837, Hyrum gave encouragement to Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who felt inadequate and overwhelmed after the Prophet Joseph revealed that he should travel to England to open the work abroad. “Hyrum, … was continually blessing and encouraging me,” said Elder Kimball. “He said to me, ‘Go, and you shall prosper as not many have prospered.’”13 Elder Kimball went to England, with wondrous results: he and his fellow missionaries baptized 1,500 people.
In September 1837 a special conference in Kirtland brought a spirit of repentance and a semblance of harmony among the Saints. With things improving, Joseph, Hyrum, and others headed for Far West, Missouri. Hyrum felt uneasy about leaving Jerusha, who was about to deliver their sixth baby, but he also felt he had to go. He arrived in Far West on 30 October 1837. Immediately, he and the others began the challenging work of preparing for Church expansion in Missouri. A few days after his arrival, Hyrum received a letter from his brother Samuel in Kirtland, dated 13 October, nearly a month earlier: “Dear Brother [Hyrum], Jerusha … died this evening about half past seven o’clock. She was delivered of a daughter on the first or second of this month. She has been very low ever since.” Samuel included part of a letter that his younger brother Don Carlos had penned on 9 October: “I called the family together. … [Jerusha] told the children to tell their father that the Lord had taken their mother and left them for you to take care of.”14 Don Carlos added a postscript assuring Hyrum that he would care for the children until his return.
Hyrum was distraught. Jerusha had been his love, his helpmeet, his strength. With deep sadness, on 13 November, only two weeks after his arrival, Hyrum started home and arrived in Kirtland in early December.
Joseph, who returned from Missouri a few days after Hyrum, felt a personal urgency to rescue Hyrum from despondency and the additional family responsibilities thrust upon him by Jerusha’s death. Without relief, Hyrum would not be able to carry his portion of the burden of building up the kingdom. Hence, Joseph informed Hyrum that it was the Lord’s will that Hyrum should marry Mary Fielding, the English convert from Canada. Thus, just three weeks after his sad return from Missouri, Hyrum married Mary on 24 December 1837.15 Later Hyrum said of this event, “It was not because I had less love or regard for Jerusha, that I married so soon, but it was for the sake of my children.”16 In due time, two children were born to Hyrum and Mary: Joseph F. (13 November 1838) and Martha Ann (14 May 1841).
In early March 1838, Hyrum and Mary, who had spent only a few weeks together as husband and wife caring for their large household, left Kirtland. Of the five living children, only Lovina, then 10, was old enough to help her new stepmother. John, oldest of the boys, was 5, Hyrum was 3, Jerusha 2, and Sarah only a few months old. In addition to the children, Hyrum’s household included “Aunty” Hannah Grinnals and a young girl, Clarissa.
After “many privations and much fatigue,” they reached Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri, in late May. Hyrum “fondly hoped, and anticipated the pleasure of spending a season in peace.”17 But by late summer trouble was again brewing between the Latter-day Saints and their Missouri foes. Once violence erupted, it mushroomed. By October there were mobbings, burnings, pitched battles, and finally Governor Lilburn W. Bogg’s “Extermination Order,” resulting in the massacre at Haun’s Mill and the siege of Far West. Some Church leaders were arrested. On 1 November 1838 a company of militia came for Hyrum. Mary, who was ill and only days away from delivering her first child, particularly needed him.
Hyrum told them the situation, but they said they did not care and said he must go. To other questions they gave no answer but, as Hyrum later testified before the Nauvoo Municipal Court, they “forced me along with the point of the bayonet into the camp, and put me under the same guard with my brother Joseph.”18 Within a month of Hyrum’s arrest, Joseph F. Smith was born.
They were put in Liberty Jail without possibility of bail. On 1 December 1838 the door slammed shut on what would be their home for more than four months. Hyrum summed up the jail experience afterward by saying he had “endured almost everything but death, from the nauseous cell, and the wretched food.”19 Their misery was mitigated by occasional visits of friends with words of comfort and bits of food, but Hyrum was able to see his new baby and Mary only once while he was in prison. Once Hyrum asked Mary to give Lovina and Clarissa each a copy of the Book of Mormon as a gift from him. He urged them to study it and wrote to the other children, “Little John, little Hyrum, little Jerusha and little Sarah, you must be good little children till father comes home.”20 To Mary he noted that he had “sent several scraps of writing to you, but I do not know that you will ever get them. … Please excuse me for bad writing and bad spelling and also composition, for my confinement is so painful to me that I cannot write nor compose my mind. … Do not neglect to write to me on the receipt of this. Yours in the bonds of love.”21
Confinement gave Hyrum and the others time for prayer and reflection, and with it the opportunity to develop inner strength. When the burden of uncertainty and grief seemed too heavy to bear, God provided solace. Even as circumstances tested Hyrum’s faith, they also increased his tenderness and understanding.
Out of this suffering came the moving epistle from the Prophet Joseph Smith containing the often-poetic revelations now in sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “My son, peace be unto thy soul. … If thou art called to pass through tribulation … , know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”22 The inspiration that sustained Joseph was shared by his brother, even as they shared their confinement. They suffered and were seasoned alike.
On 6 April 1839 the prisoners left their dismal cell and worn-out straw beds and stepped into the bright light and fresh air of spring. Hyrum felt weak after months of confinement. Of the experience he wrote: “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had born testimony to.”23
Hyrum continued on, typically seeking to heal wrongs and promote reconciliation. In 1839 Orson Hyde, who had suffered a period of estrangement from the Church, desired to come back. Of Hyrum Smith and Heber Kimball, he wrote that these “men of noted kindness of heart, spake to me words of encouragement and comfort in the hour of my greatest sorrow.”24 Even former neighbors still living in Manchester, New York, who did not agree with the Smiths’ religious beliefs, remembered Hyrum’s kindness. Lorenzo Saunders noted, writing of his father’s death, “Hyrum Smith in particular … was at our house all the time … and he was attentive, … always ready to bestow anything.”25 And among those who often sought help from Hyrum in their personal struggles were Sidney Rigdon and Emma Smith.
For Hyrum and Joseph, the respite after Liberty Jail was brief. Almost immediately both leaders became fully engaged in mobilizing the Saints in Illinois to establish a new city and build another temple. However, the Missouri disaster had been so crushing that it was not until January 1841, nearly two years later, that the Saints regrouped enough to actually start work on the Nauvoo Temple. Here, as in Kirtland, Hyrum was a moving force in the early stages of the construction of the temple. Later, when the Prophet Joseph realized that he might not live long enough to see the temple finished, he would select a small group to receive the ordinances in the dedicated upper story of his red brick store on 4 May 1842. Hyrum would be among the first nine men to be endowed and later to officiate with those who would oversee future ordinance work in the completed temple.
On 19 January 1841 Hyrum became Patriarch to the Church in the place of his father, who had passed away four months earlier.26 Following Oliver Cowdery’s departure from the Church in 1838, Hyrum was appointed Assistant President of the Church as a second witness of the Restoration in place of Oliver. This sacred responsibility placed Hyrum firmly on the road that would lead to Carthage, where he and his brother Joseph would seal their testimony with their blood.27
To the end, Hyrum remained by Joseph’s side. When Joseph fled for his life on 22 June 1844, Hyrum was with him. On the western banks of the Mississippi River, when it became obvious that they had to decide whether to return to Nauvoo, it was Hyrum to whom the Prophet turned and said, “You are the oldest, what shall we do?”
“Let us go back and give ourselves up and see the thing out,” was Hyrum’s reply.
“If you go back, I will go with you, but we shall be butchered,” said Joseph.
“No, no; let us go back and put our trust in God and we shall not be harmed. The Lord is in it. If we have to die, we will be reconciled to our fate,” said Hyrum.28
They returned and died at the hands of an angry mob on the hot afternoon of 27 June 1844 in the Carthage Jail. Truly, “in life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!”29
Of Hyrum, Joseph had written in 1842 what may sum up his feelings, appreciation, and hopes for his dear brother: “Brother Hyrum, what a faithful heart you have got. Oh, may the eternal Jehovah crown eternal blessings upon your head, as a reward for the care you have had for my soul. Oh, how many are the sorrows we have shared together. … Hyrum, thy name shall be written in the Book of the Law of the Lord, for those who come after thee to look upon, that they may pattern after thy works.”30
Today we see the fulfillment of a promise given to Hyrum that “his children shall be many and his posterity numerous, and they shall rise up and call him blessed.”31 Thousands of faithful Latter-day Saint men and women trace their lineage through the four children of Hyrum and Jerusha who grew to adulthood and through the two children of Hyrum and Mary. Premier among these descendants are two Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum and Mary; and Joseph Fielding Smith, a grandson.