“I Was with My Family”: Joseph Smith As Husband, Father, Son, and Brother


As Latter-day Saints, we have often heard Church leaders speak about solidifying our homes and strengthening our family relationships. President David O. McKay said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home” (in Conference Report, April 1964, page 5). President Harold B. Lee said, “The greatest of the Lord’s work you brethren will ever do as fathers will be within the walls of your own home” (in Conference Report, April 1973, page 130). These inspired utterances have become standard observations concerning marital and family happiness.

The Lord’s current prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, continually warns us of modern society’s attempt to undermine the strength of the family. In recent conferences, President Benson has given specific instructions to fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and children.

These urgent pleadings from the prophets for us to deepen our love for our families and ensure harmony in the home are not new to the twentieth century. They reflect the eternal significance of the family unit in our Father’s plan for our earthly happiness and eternal salvation.

Few men have so fully understood the proper place of family life in the eternal scheme as did the prophet of the Restoration, Joseph Smith. Not only was he taught from on high the theology of eternal families, but more important, he incorporated these eternal truths into acts of love, tenderness, and concern for his own family.

Benjamin F. Johnson, who lived for a time in the Prophet’s home, was powerfully impressed by Joseph’s tender example. Later, he wrote: “As a son, he was nobility itself, in love and honor of his parents; as a brother he was loving and true, even unto death; as a husband and father, his devotion … stopped only at idolatry” (The Benjamin F. Johnson Letter to Elder George S. Gibbs, page 4, pamphlet in the Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

The Prophet Joseph’s love and devotion for family can inspire all Latter-day Saints to become celestial sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, as our prophets have counseled.

Obeying His Parents

As a youth, Joseph personified the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). He strictly obeyed his parents not from fear, but from deep love. His love and tenderness toward his parents can best be seen in an event from his childhood. Young Joseph had become infected with a serious and extremely painful leg disease. After several weeks of excruciating pain and many failed attempts by surgeons to alleviate it, doctors concluded that the leg must be amputated. But when young Joseph and Mother Smith objected, the doctors agreed to attempt one more operation. They insisted that Joseph be bound to the bed and that he must drink some wine or brandy to deaden the pain. Joseph’s response, recorded by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, illustrates his confidence in his father and his tenderness toward his mother.

“‘No,’ exclaimed Joseph, ‘I will not touch one particle of liquor, neither will I be tied down; but I will tell you what I will do—I will have my father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms, and then I will do whatever is necessary in order to have the bone taken out.’ Looking at me, he said, ‘Mother, I want you to leave the room, for I know you cannot bear to see me suffer so; father can stand it, but you have carried me so much, and watched over me so long, you are almost worn out.’ Then looking up into my face, his eyes swimming in tears, he continued, ‘Now, mother, promise me that you will not stay, will you? The Lord will help me, and I shall get through with it’” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, edited by Preston Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, page 57).

Later, when the young prophet emerged from the grove of trees after his sacred experience on that spring day in 1820, his first thought was to share the knowledge of the true nature of God and the message of the forthcoming restoration of the gospel with his family. Three and a half years later, when he shared with his family the message left him by the angel Moroni, his mother recalled, “We were now confirmed in the opinion that God was about to bring to light something upon which we could stay our minds, or that would give us a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and redemption of the human family. This caused us greatly to rejoice, the sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house, and tranquility reigned in our midst” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, pages 82–83).

A Message for Families

Likewise, today’s Latter-day Saint homes can and should be filled with rejoicing, happiness, and tranquility when the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ is there in abundance and gospel principles are constantly practiced. The gospel message, in fact, is a message for families.

Line upon line and precept upon precept, the Lord taught Joseph that the gospel was restored to unite families eternally. On the morning after Joseph had received a visitation from the angel Moroni, he was working in the field with his father and brother. Physically weary from his experiences the night before, Joseph found it hard to work. His father, supposing he was sick, sent him to the house. The weakened Joseph stopped to rest under an apple tree. Almost immediately he was visited again by the angel Moroni. The first thing the heavenly messenger said was, “Why did you not tell your father that which I commanded you to tell him?” Joseph answered, “I was afraid my father would not believe me.” The angel then promised Joseph, “He will believe every word you say to him” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, page 79).

Joseph was taught forcefully by Moroni to share his experiences and new knowledge with his parents; they were given for the purpose of blessing and exalting his own family as well as all other families. This experience undoubtedly strengthened Joseph’s love for his parents and his confidence in their support of him. When told of Moroni’s visit, Joseph’s father responded faithfully that what his son had experienced was “of God” (JS—H 1:50). This response characterized the faith and confidence of Joseph’s parents throughout the trials of the young prophet’s life.

Beyond the Bounds of Death

Joseph cherished the faithfulness and constant support of his beloved parents, as seen by his tender pleading with the Lord concerning his father’s failing health in 1835: “I waited on him all this day with my heart raised to God in the name of Jesus Christ, that He would restore him to health, that I might be blessed with his company and advice, esteeming it one of the greatest earthly blessings to be blessed with the society of parents, whose mature years and experience render them capable of administering the most wholesome advice” (History of the Church, 2:289).

Even when Joseph was most busy with his responsibilities as prophet and President of the Church, his concern for his family and parents came to the fore. His diary for 8–11 October 1835—when he had just commenced again to translate the writings of Abraham—records his concern for his father. No other business was more pressing or important.

“Thursday, 8.—At home. I attended on my father with great anxiety.

“Friday, 9.—At home. Waited on my father.

“Saturday, 10.—At home, and visited the house of my father, found him failing very fast.

“Sunday, 11.—Waited on my father again, who was very sick. In secret prayer in the morning, the Lord said, ‘My servant, thy father shall live.’ …

“At evening Brother David Whitmer came in. We called on the Lord in mighty prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, and laid our hands on [my father], and rebuked the disease. And God heard and answered our prayers—to the great joy and satisfaction of our souls” (History of the Church, 2:289).

Just as Joseph loved and was concerned about his faithful parents, his love for his brothers and sisters endured beyond the bounds of death. His respect and concern for Alvin, his oldest brother, is exemplary. Before Alvin died in 1823, he urged Joseph and Hyrum to finish building the house that he had begun for their parents. And then Alvin exhorted Joseph to remain faithful in bringing forth the gospel work. (See History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, pages 86–87.) Joseph was diligent in fulfilling both of Alvin’s requests. In his history, dated 22 August 1842, Joseph expressed his deep love and admiration for Alvin: “I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart when he died. He was the oldest and noblest of my father’s family. He was one of the noblest of the sons of men” (Ibid., page 333).

What indescribable joy must have filled Joseph when, on 21 January 1836 in the Kirtland Temple, he saw in vision his loved ones in “the celestial kingdom of God. … I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept” (D&C 137:1, 5).

Joseph was deeply saddened by the death of another of his brothers, Don Carlos, in 1841. In speaking later at the funeral of Ephraim Marks, Joseph expressed his heartfelt loss: “It is a very solemn and awful time; I never felt more solemn. It calls to mind the deaths of my oldest brother, Alvin, who died in New York, and my youngest brother, Don Carlos Smith, who died in Nauvoo. It has been hard for me to live on earth and see these young men, upon whom we have leaned for support and comfort, taken from us in the midst of their youth” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, page 333).

“An Increase of Love”

The sorrow Joseph felt at the deaths of these two beloved brothers was perhaps surpassed by another event involving another brother. After a seemingly trivial disagreement, Joseph’s brother William turned against him and became disaffected from the Church. Along with other apostates, he began publicly declaring Joseph a “fallen prophet.” The worst damage, however, was done within the family circle. Joseph describes William’s angry departure from the Church:

“He went home and spread the leaven of iniquity among my brothers, and especially prejudiced the mind of brother Samuel. I soon learned that he was in the street exclaiming against me, and no doubt our enemies rejoiced at it” (History of the Church, 2:297).

Despite the wound inflicted by a rebellious-yet-beloved brother, Joseph felt no vengeance, no hate, no bitterness—only patience and forgiveness. His actions toward William are a profound example of the Lord’s wise counsel to show “forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:43–44).

Daniel Tyler, who attended a meeting with Joseph Smith shortly after William’s apostasy and bitter denunciations of his brother, the Prophet, left us this touching account of Joseph’s anguish over his wayward brother: “I perceived sadness in his countenance and tears trickling down his cheeks. A few moments later a hymn was sung and he opened the meeting by prayer. Instead of facing the audience, however, he turned his back and bowed upon his knees, facing the wall. This I suppose, was done to hide his sorrow and tears.

“That prayer, which was to a considerable extent in behalf of those who accused him of having gone astray and fallen into sin, that the Lord would forgive them and open their eyes that they might see aright—that prayer … partook of the learning and eloquence of heaven” (Juvenile Instructor, 15 February 1892, page 127).

It was a measure of the greatness of the Prophet that he regarded the spiritual unity of the family so highly; thus, forgiveness and love prevailed. He patiently and lovingly helped his brother William again into the fellowship of the family and the Church, despite the damage he had done to Joseph and the Church.

Love “Stronger than Death”

Among brothers, friends, or leaders of the Church, there was no bond of love or association stronger than that between Joseph and his brother Hyrum. Joseph wrote, “And I could pray in my heart that all my brethren were like unto my beloved brother Hyrum, who possesses the mildness of a lamb, and the integrity of a Job, and in short, the meekness and humility of Christ; and I love him with that love that is stronger than death, for I never had occasion to rebuke him, nor he me” (History of the Church, 2:338).

If all brothers and sisters could tread the footsteps of Joseph the Prophet and love their siblings with “that love that is stronger than death,” their hearts would become eternally entwined, and home would become a heaven.

“My Beloved Emma”

The capstone of Joseph Smith’s example of celestial family relationships was his affectionate association with his beloved wife Emma and his children. One contemporary of the Prophet said that his life’s greatest motto after “God and His Kingdom” was that of “Family and friends.” (See Johnson Letter, page 4.) These two mottoes were united in Joseph’s life, for it had been taught him, through experience and revelation, that he could not attain the former without the latter.

Early in Joseph’s marriage, he learned that his success in doing the work of the Lord was directly linked to the harmony that prevailed in his home. While he was working on the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph and Emma had “some words,” as every young married couple occasionally does. Joseph went upstairs in the Whitmer home to continue the translation of the Book of Mormon, but he discovered that he could not, for “all was dark.” It wasn’t until Joseph had retired to the woods to pray for forgiveness and then returned to obtain Emma’s forgiveness that the Spirit of the Lord returned so that the translation could continue. (See B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:130–131.)

The Prophet had seen in vision that marriage should be for eternity. It is no wonder that he so vigorously taught the Saints to love their spouses fully, to be tender and faithful. His own love for Emma and the children illustrated his firm conviction that families can be forever. Joseph’s contemporaries report that he was quick to exhort Latter-day Saint husbands to take good care of their wives and warned them that if they did not, they would not have them hereafter. Lucy Walker Kimball records:

“The Prophet Joseph Smith often referred to the feelings that should exist between husbands and wives, that they … should be … companions, the nearest and dearest objects on earth in every sense of the word. He said men should beware how they treat their wives. … He also said many would awake on the morning of the resurrection sadly disappointed; for they, by transgression, would have neither wives nor children” (They Knew the Prophet, compiled by Hyrum L. and Helen Mae Andrus, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974, page 139).

One simple yet profound experience with the Prophet and his family made a deep impact on young Benjamin Johnson. One Sunday morning he was sitting with Joseph in private conversation when two of Joseph and Emma’s children came into the room—“all so nice, bright and sweet, and calling to them my attention, [Joseph] said, ‘Benjamin, look at these children, how could I help loving their mother.’”

“To me,” Brother Johnson wrote, Emma “appeared the queen of his heart and of his home” (Johnson Letter, page 4).

Joseph certainly practiced what he preached. He knew the importance of a loving marriage that would endure eternity. His concern for Emma was revealed in the vigils he kept over his wife when she was sick, attending to her needs and praying for her health. His diary entry for Sunday, 2 October 1842, includes this note: “Emma continued very sick. I was with her all day.” His entry on Thursday, 6 October, gives additional insight into his tender love and care for Emma and his concern for her welfare: “May the Lord speedily raise her to the bosom of her family, that the heart of His servant may be comforted again” (History of the Church, 5:167–68).

Perhaps the most tender expressions and examples of Joseph’s love for Emma and their children were those that came when he, because of Church work, persecution, or illegal imprisonments, was separated from his loved ones. His mind and heart were always with them, and he longed to be close to them. Even while he was doing the work of the Lord that he loved so dearly, Joseph’s constant concern was for his family and their welfare. While on a mission to New York and Canada in October 1833, he wrote: “I feel very well in my mind. The Lord is with us, but have much anxiety about my family” (History of the Church, 1:419). Joseph and Sidney Rigdon took their deep concern for their families to the Lord in earnest prayer and received the revelation contained in section 100 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Lord promised: “Your families are well; they are in mine hands, …

“Therefore, follow me. …

“Let your hearts be comforted” (D&C 100:1–2, 15).

On an earlier mission to New York, Joseph wrote a letter to Emma, describing his marvelous experiences in the big city. He carefully described the impressive buildings and the great inventions. His real longing, however, was not to see the wonders of the world, but to be at home. “After beholding all that I had any desire to behold I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind and behold, the thoughts of home of Emma and Julia rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them. My breast is filled with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and husband” (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled by Dean C. Jessee, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984, page 253).

Joseph was most sad and lonely when he was separated from his family for any length of time. How distressed he must have been to so frequently have to hide or live in seclusion for fear mobocrats would take his life. On one occasion, his friends were transferring him to another hiding place when Joseph insisted that they drive past his home. Upon seeing that there were no enemies nearby, Joseph rushed into the house, knelt beside the beds of his children, and uttered a brief prayer for them. He kissed each child and his beloved Emma, then rushed out the door on his way to a new hiding place (E. Cecil McGavin, The Family of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963, page 138).

It was during another period of hiding from those who sought his life that Joseph recorded one of the most touching expressions of love any man could utter. He must have longed to be free to associate with his wife and family, but until the persecutions ceased, he could see them only secretly and momentarily. After such a visit by Emma, he recorded:

“What unspeakable delight, and what transports of joy swelled in my bosom, when I took by the hand, on that night, my beloved Emma—she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart. Many were the reverberations of my mind when I contemplated for a moment the many scenes we had been called to pass through, the fatigues and the toils, the sorrows and sufferings, and the joys and consolations, from time to time, which had strewed our paths and crowned our board. Oh what a commingling of thought filled my mind for the moment, again she is here, even in the seventh trouble—undaunted, firm, and unwavering—unchangeable, affectionate Emma!” (History of the Church, 5:107).

Whether he was in hiding from the mob or imprisoned in filthy dungeons, his love for Emma and his children consoled him and gave him strength to endure hardships and return to them. His love was no doubt intensified by these trying periods of separation. But when he was able to associate freely with his family, Joseph was the happiest he could be. There are many entries in his diary similar to this: “March 27, 1834—Remained at home and had great joy with my family” (History of the Church, 2:44).

Today, many people seem to feel that they can find relaxing, refreshing times only outside of the home and away from their families. But there is a valuable lesson for us in the Prophet’s loving relationship with his family. In August 1838, he stated that because of “many late fatigues and arduous duties,” he remained at home with his family for three days to “refresh” himself (History of the Church, 3:55). His success as a husband, father, son, and brother was essential to his success as a prophet.

In our materialistic world, with its hectic pace and many pressures upon our time, it is easy to become deceived as to what matters most. But the Prophet Joseph Smith’s example continues to teach us that our families are what really matter in our lives, for it is in the family that true joy can be found and that the greatest service can be rendered.

Joseph Smith’s accomplishments and the greatness of his character offer an example to us all. But a unique aspect of his greatness—one that can build greatness in us as we emulate his example—is best expressed in the simple, oft-repeated entry in the Prophet’s journal: “I was with my family” (History of the Church, 4:550).

[illustrations] Illustrations by Robert T. Barrett

[illustration] Some of Joseph’s happiest moments were when he was with his family. He recorded in his diary on March 27, 1834: “Remained at home and had great joy with my family.”

[illustration] Illustration by Greg K. Olsen

Brent L. Top is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.