Before Joseph Smith Jr. received his heavenly visions, his parents sensed he was attuned to the things of eternity. His mother later wrote that Joseph was “less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.” 1 An 1834 patriarchal blessing the mature Prophet received from his father reviewed Joseph’s searching prior to actually seeing the Father and Son: “Thou hast sought to know his ways, and from thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of his law.” 2
Outwardly Joseph’s early life was ordinary, according to Mother Smith, who merely says it contained the “trivial circumstances” of a normal childhood. 3 But looking back, we can see how he was shaped by his pioneer heritage, his morally sturdy and God-fearing family, and his unique sensitivity to spiritual influences.
Birth and Childhood
Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805, the fifth child of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. Though skilled in making barrels and buckets, Joseph’s father generally farmed during the decade of the Prophet’s childhood in upper New England. Consequently, Joseph was trained in persistence through farm chores, unceasing even in Vermont’s cold, snowy winters. The 1834 patriarchal blessing commends Joseph for his family relationships: “Thou hast been an obedient son: the commands of thy father and the reproofs of thy mother, thou hast respected and obeyed.” 4
Family misfortunes included sickness and crops destroyed by weather. This background helps explain Joseph’s limited education. Since poverty required hard work from all members of the family, he explained, “I was merely instructed in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic.” 5 Father Smith taught common school for several winters while the Smiths lived in the Prophet’s birthplace. But young Joseph was not ready for regular instruction until after his family had moved to neighboring Royalton Township, where Joseph Smith Sr. appears on the tax records from 1809 to 1811. A granddaughter of Royalton deacon Jonathan Kinney said he “oft repeated” that “I taught Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, his letters while teaching school upon Dewey Hill about the year 1810–15.” 6
Typhoid Fever and Bone Operation
About mid-1812 the Smith family moved just across the Connecticut River to the village of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Living children at the time were Alvin (age 14), Hyrum (12), Sophronia (9), Joseph (6), Samuel (4), and William (1). Two daughters and a son were born later. Fulfilling a dream for education, the parents enrolled eligible children in a neighborhood school and sent Hyrum five miles away to the “academy in Hanover,” which we know was Moor’s Charity School, affiliated with Dartmouth College. 7
The Smiths’ plans for stability and schooling were disrupted by a regional epidemic, then labeled “typhus,” which was actually typhoid fever. It peaked in 1813, when Lucy Smith says all her children were overcome. 8 Sophronia was near death and apparently stopped breathing, but Mother Smith implored God for healing and walked the floor with the child until she could breathe again. Sophronia finally recovered. Joseph, on the other hand, seemed near recovery when a painful abscess developed in his shoulder. This was lanced by a physician, and immediately the pain moved to his left shin bone. For three weeks Joseph suffered intense pain. A surgeon opened the infected area twice for drainage. Each time the pain subsided and the leg began to heal until uncontrolled swelling returned. Joseph later recalled the incessant pain: “I endured the most acute suffering for a long time.” He also remembered the care of “Drs. Smith, Stone, and Perkins, of Hanover.” 9
Nathan Smith and Cyrus Perkins were prominent as the main medical professors at Dartmouth College and partners in practice. 10 At the final crisis, medical students came with a doctor, undoubtedly Nathan Smith. They visited the home and discussed the option of amputation, since the main bone in Joseph’s lower leg was deteriorating. The boy and his mother insisted on a new procedure developed by Nathan Smith—boring into the edges of the dead bone and breaking it out, trusting that infection would cease and in time the remaining structure would regenerate. Dr. LeRoy Wirthlin studied Nathan Smith’s writings and student lecture notes preserved at Dartmouth and Yale, concluding that Lucy’s narrative exactly describes Dr. Smith’s methods, which were well in advance of their time. 11 The fortunate outcome reveals a doctor’s skill and the remarkable faith and courage of his seven-year-old patient. Lucy Smith’s account replays the wrenching details. Joseph refused the liquor that might dull his pain; he pleaded not to be strapped but rather held by his father’s arms; and through tears he begged his mother to leave the room, insisting “The Lord will help me, and I shall get through with it.” 12
By November of that year, Nathan Smith had resigned from Dartmouth and began lecturing at Yale. 13 He had been the right doctor, providentially available at the right time.
The Move to Palmyra
Joseph says he “went on crutches” for the next three years, 14 during which time the family sought to rebuild finances by renting a farm a short distance across the Connecticut River in Vermont. Their crops failed for three seasons, the last being 1816, when a late September frost destroyed the northern New England harvest. Lucy’s history describes her husband’s subsequent trip to Palmyra, New York, to find a new home, and his letter that came before long, alerting the family to prepare to leave. Soon a Mr. Howard came with a team and wagon for the move.
The boy Joseph left New England conscious of strong family traditions. Both grandfathers, Asael Smith and Solomon Mack, had served in the American War of Independence, which began in 1775. And later the Prophet said, “Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.” Joseph was probably 8 when he last saw his father’s parents and 11 the last time he saw his maternal grandparents. Asael Smith was a universalist who believed Christ’s Atonement would save all, and also a restorationer who “always knew that God was going to raise up some branch of his family to be a great benefit to mankind.” Wife Mary Duty Smith was a lifelong Congregationalist, and both lived to see the Book of Mormon and believe it. Asael wrote out his practical and religious convictions for his family. Similarly, Lucy Mack Smith’s father, Solomon, died before the Church was restored, but published a pamphlet on how he was converted late in life to Christ’s Atonement by the Spirit and by his wife’s example. Lydia Gates Mack was also a lifelong Congregationalist of deep conviction. She stayed with her daughter Lucy before the Smiths moved west, and the boy Joseph knew of the aged grandmother’s parting plea that Lucy “continue faithful in the exercise of every religious duty to the end of your days that I may have the pleasure of embracing you in another fairer World above.” 15 Lucy’s history shows that she and her husband perpetuated the Christian commitment of their parents as they fashioned their own family life. Joseph later wrote that his father and mother “spared no pains to instructing me in the Christian religion.” 16
The move to western New York covered about 300 road miles in midwinter (1816–17). Lucy discovered their hired teamster was “an unprincipled and unfeeling wretch,” wasting her resources and bullying her children, especially Joseph, whom he forced to walk, though the boy “was still lame.” Joseph remembered “the most excrutiating weariness and pain” as he was forced to stumble “through the snow 40 miles per day for several days.” Lucy finally dismissed this teamster, arranging for Joseph to ride with another family traveling on the same road. Later, after the main group had gone ahead, Joseph tried to take his place on the last sleigh but was spitefully knocked down by the driver. Joseph said he was “left to wallow in my blood until a stranger came along, picked me up, and carried me to the town of Palmyra.” This seems to have occurred some distance from the village, so the stranger evidently took Joseph into his own conveyance. 17 Joseph had received both cruelty and kindness, but mistreatment did not embitter the boy, who later recalled his early “native cheery temperament” (JS—H 1:28).
Joseph remembered living for a long time in the village of Palmyra before moving to their farm, two miles to the south (see JS—H 1:3). Palmyra publisher Pomeroy Tucker wrote of the Smiths, mixing memory and hearsay. He personally remembered the popular snack shop of the Smiths, and he learned of hired farm labor and well-digging done by father Smith “and his elder sons.” 18 Lucy indicates that in their first year in the village she maintained a profitable business “painting oil-cloth coverings,” 19 while father Smith and the oldest brothers earned money for a down payment on a forested hundred acres. There they built a log home on the border running between Palmyra township and what would become Manchester township, and cleared 30 acres of heavy timber. 20 They moved into their new log house by 1819, since Lucy says they were settled there “only two years since we entered Palmyra.” 21 Alvin had turned 21, and Hyrum was 19. Now in the growth spurt of 13, Joseph retired many nights with muscles aching from working side by side with adults in these group labors. His older sister, Sophronia, and his next younger brother, Samuel, also made significant contributions.
Family Relationships and Religious Sensitivities
As a young teenager, Joseph perceived the sacrifices others made for him, later expressing gratitude that had obviously been generated in youth. In Kirtland, Joseph sought to calm a family dispute involving his younger brother William, asking him not to distress their parents, who had cared for their children with “unremitting diligence,” spending untold hours “of sorrow, and anxiety … over our cradles and bedsides, in times of sickness.” 22 In temporary exile from Nauvoo in 1842, the Prophet dictated appreciation for friends and family, reflecting on “the scenes of my childhood.” He asked God to bless his counselor-brother Hyrum for his “faithful heart” and “for the care you have had for my soul.” He thanked God for “so honorable a parentage,” disclosing the lifelong impact of his oldest brother, Alvin, co-provider for the family before his death in late 1823 from an acute illness, possibly appendicitis. Joseph remembered that Alvin was “candid and sober,” minding his parents “in toiling all day.” 23 This emotional outpouring shows how deeply these role models impressed Joseph as he grew to be equally responsible and caring.
In an 1832 autobiography Joseph explains that when he was 12 years old he was overwhelmed with the forests and night sky, which spoke to his soul of the intelligence and power of their Creator. 24 This autobiography also establishes an extended period for his religious investigations, stating that “about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to … the welfare of my immortal soul.” Related to personal salvation was serious study of the churches: “from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the … divisions, the wickedness, … and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.” 25 In his later full history, the Prophet was more exact in stating the Father and Son appeared to him “early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (JS—H 1:14). He was then in his “fifteenth year” (JS—H 1:7). This means his period of investigation lasted about three years, culminating in the First Vision. Thus he began an intense search for the right church about early 1817, when his family arrived in a village heavily agitated by questions of accepting Christ and finding ways to serve him. 26 His mother verified the intense inner quest of her son prior to his 1820 vision. She wrote that he “always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature.” 27
A Fixed Determination
Character is formed by how we react to challenges. In early youth Joseph Smith showed intelligent awareness of others and self. He transcended difficulties by courage and faith in God. Joseph’s 1832 history shows he systematically studied by, as he recalled, “searching the scriptures, believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.” He then measured the available religious beliefs by the Bible, finding no church that was “built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.” 28 He had exhausted his resources for answers (see JS—H 1:12–13). “Information,” he later said, “was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called upon the Lord.” 29 As we study his life to that point, we see that his moral and spiritual heritage and his family’s religious convictions had helped prepare Joseph Smith Jr. for the great manifestation he received on a spring day in 1820 when he walked into the Sacred Grove and knelt in humble prayer.
Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (1853; repr. 1995), 84. The main narrative for this article is based on this first printed edition of Mother Smith’s history and the preliminary manuscript on which it is based. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization have been standardized in references throughout this article.
In My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth: Readings in Church History (1979), 8.
Biographical Sketches, 73.
My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth, 8–9.
The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, rev. ed. (2002), 10.
Statement of Eleanor P. Skinner, Oct. 7, 1906, in photograph album presented to President Joseph F. Smith by Junius Wells, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ph2348.
Richard K. Behrens, “Notes on the Education of Hyrum Smith,” unpublished manuscript in author’s possession (2001).
See Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of Biographical Sketches, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Personal Writings, 227.
See Oliver S. Hayward and Constance E. Putnam, Improve, Perfect, and Perpetuate: Dr. Nathan Smith and Early American Medical Education (1998), 136–38.
Wirthlin’s most complete discussion is “Joseph Smith’s Boyhood Operation: An 1813 Surgical Success,” Brigham Young University Studies, spring 1981, 131–54.
Biographical Sketches, 65.
See Hayward and Putnam, Dr. Nathan Smith, 201.
Personal Writings, 227.
Quotations and information in this paragraph are found in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, 2nd ed. (2003), vii, 37, 147–48.
Personal Writings, 10.
For Lucy’s account, see Biographical Sketches, 68–69; for Joseph’s account, see Personal Writings, 227.
Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (1867), 12.
Biographical Sketches, 70.
For chronology and manual labor, see Donald L. Enders, “The Joseph Smith Sr. Family: Farmers of the Genesee,” in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr., eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man (1993), 213–25.
Biographical Sketches, 71.
Letter to William Smith, Dec. 18, 1835, in Personal Writings, 142.
Journal, Aug. 16 and 23, 1842, in The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (1992), 416, 439–41.
This “History of the Life of Joseph Smith Jr.” appears in transcription and photocopy in Personal Writings, 9–20.
Personal Writings, 10–11.
See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” Ensign, Apr. 1996, 15–16.
Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of Biographical Sketches.
Personal Writings, 10–11.
Journal, Nov. 9, 1835, in Personal Writings, 104.