The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began in the Sacred Grove when fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith prayed to know which church was true. But Heavenly Father had been preparing Joseph Smith throughout his life for that marvelous First Vision—the most important message the world has received since the time of Jesus Christ. This preparation began on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, when Joseph Smith, Jr., was born.
Named after his father, he was the fifth child born to Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. Six more brothers and sisters followed. Two of the children died while still babies, but Joseph played and grew up with three older siblings—Alvin, Hyrum, and Sophronia—and five younger ones—Samuel, William, Catherine, Don Carlos, and Lucy.
The Smiths were a happy family who worked hard and loved one another. The children didn’t have much opportunity to go to school, but learning was an important part of their family life.
Before Joseph was seven years old, the family had moved three times. It was after the third move that typhoid fever killed six thousand people in the area where the Smiths lived. One by one the Smith family became ill. Sophronia was near death for three months but finally started to recover after her parents prayed fervently that she be healed.
Seven-year-old Joseph was sick for only two weeks, but the terrible fever caused an infection in the bone between the knee and ankle of his left leg. The skin there swelled tight, and for over two weeks Joseph suffered terrible pain in his leg. Twelve-year-old Hyrum showed great love for his little brother. He sat beside Joseph almost day and night, pressing the swollen leg in his hands, trying to help Joseph endure the pain.
Twice the doctor tried to drain the infection and reduce the swelling, but it didn’t work. Finally he told Joseph’s parents that the leg ought to be removed before the infection spread to the rest of Joseph’s body. But Joseph’s mother insisted that they try again to save the leg.
Dr. Nathan Smith, who knew more about this disease than any other doctor in the United States at that time, was one of the doctors who treated Joseph. He agreed to try one more time to cut out only the infection. Before he began to operate, he wanted to tie Joseph to the bed and to give him some liquor to dull the pain. Joseph refused both helps. “No,” exclaimed Joseph, “I will not touch one particle of liquor, neither will I be tied down. … I will have my father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms.” * He also wanted his mother to leave the room so that she wouldn’t have to see him suffer. The surgery was extremely painful. When Dr. Smith broke off the infected part of the bone, Joseph screamed.
When the surgery was finally over, Joseph was sent to visit his Uncle Jesse Smith at a seaside town, Salem, Massachusetts, to help him recover. But though both his life and leg were spared, for three years he walked with crutches, and for the rest of his life—especially when he was tired—he walked with a slight limp.
In 1816 the family moved again, this time to Palmyra, New York. Joseph’s father had gone ahead to find a place for them to live. When Joseph’s mother and the eight children went to join him, they hired a man named Caleb Howard to drive the wagon with their things. Ten-year-old Joseph had not fully recovered from his leg operation yet, making it painful for him to walk. But Mr. Howard still made him walk miles at a time.
At Utica, New York, still many miles from Palmyra, Mr. Howard unloaded the Smith’s household goods and was about to leave with the wagon and horses. Joseph’s mother demanded that he leave them, then reloaded the wagon and drove the rest of the way herself.
It was Joseph’s mission in life to be a prophet of God, and it was part of his family’s mission to help prepare him to be a prophet. They did a wonderful job! He learned much from them: He learned to love, to be honest and kind, to work hard, and, most important, to pray and to draw close to Heavenly Father.
Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, edited by Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), page 57.