All of us have wondered what Joseph Smith was like. What do we have that tells us about his character, about the kind of human being he was, and about his role as prophet of God?
Also, all of us like to learn of true incidents that show the power of the priesthood.
So, since I had to write a research paper and since I had heard reports of the sickness prevalent among the Saints in the summer of 1839 in Nauvoo, I decided to read diaries, reminiscences, and journals to get firsthand accounts about how Joseph handled the situation from those who were actually there.
Maybe it was the climate, the mosquitoes, or the insects of the swampy area, but whatever the reason, that summer many Saints suffered from what some have called undulant fever, and others, a form of malaria. Most Saints just called it the “ague.”
Wilford Woodruff referred to July 22, 1839, as the “day of God’s power.” After reading the following accounts, it’s easy to see why.
From the memoirs of Levi Hancock:
“My parents were so sick at times that we children knew not what to do. At times we children were so hungry and sick that it seemed we were destined to starve to death. …
“When the people began to move into Nauvoo and were dying off so fast, father would work day and night making caskets, when he was not sick.
“Sometimes after our annual conference, the Prophet and others brought oil to our house to be consecrated.” 1
From the memoirs of Jesse W. Crosby:
“ … many … on account of their great exposure were easily overcome and fell victims to the destroyer amongst whom was my Mother, and Brother, and for months together there were not well ones enough to administer to the sick. I, myself, was taken sick in July and was laid up till late in September, and the house which I had commenced was not finished for the season. By and by the scene changed more favorably. As the winter approached the sickness disappeared, and plans were laid for draining some parts of the land which lay low, etc.” 2
From the memoirs of John Lyman Smith:
“Our first location there was in a log stable belonging to a widow White. Some blocks east of what was known as the Temple block. This hovel was made of a small class of crooked poles, between which I often crept instead of raising the quilt hung over the doorway. This part … at that time was thickly covered with blackberry bushes mixed with oak and hazel brush. Our family were all sick with chills and fever (familiarly known as the shakes) except my mother.
“From this Mormon home … Brother George A. [Smith] started as an Apostle on his mission to England, he having to be lifted into the wagon, as he was too weak to walk. This was in September, 1839. Before leaving he placed in my hand his last quarter of a dollar with a request to get mother some tea. The next day the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum visited us and administered to us all, father being delirious from the effects of the fever. Their words comforted us greatly, as they said in the name of the Lord you all shall be well again. Upon leaving the hovel Joseph placed his slippers upon my mother’s feet and sprang upon his horse from the doorway and rode home barefoot. The next day Joseph removed father to his own house and nursed him until he recovered.” 3
From the memoirs of Oliver B. Huntington (sometime after July 8 or 18):
“A few days after her [Oliver’s mother’s] death, which was the third in Nauvoo [then called Commerce], Brother Joseph seeing that we still grew worse, told William that we would all die if we stayed there, and that he must take the team and bring us down to his own house. So he took us all into his own family, but me, he sent to Hiram Clarks, about twenty rods distant, yes forty rods. Here I spent an awful summer, the most dreadful I ever experienced, or ever expect to, in that way. My ague was attended with the Cortivical Rheumatics the most painful of all afflictions wherewith I was ever afflicted. Every other day I had the ague, and the days between, the rheumatics raged. Thus I passed days and almost weeks. …” 4
“The prophet was our … doctor, and he visited us nearly every day, in fact he was doctor for all the brethren and every day he went the circuit, to all, which took him pretty much all the time through the sickly season. He would lay on hands and apply simple proscriptions. He once ordered me a showering of cold water, and Carlos Smith layed hands on me and my chills turned to the real shaking ague, which was less dangerous.” 5
From the journal of Joseph Smith, as recorded in the History of the Church:
“Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8th, 9th, and 10th of July.—I was with the Twelve selecting hymns, for the purpose of compiling a hymn book.
“About this time much sickness began to manifest itself among the brethren, as well as among the inhabitants of the place, so that this week and the following were generally spent visiting the sick and administering to them …
“Sunday, 21.—There was no meeting on account of much rain and much sickness, however many of the sick were this day raised up by the power of God, through the instrumentality of the Elders of Israel ministering unto them in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Monday and Tuesday, 22nd and 23rd.—The sick were administered unto with great success, but many remain sick, and new cases are occurring daily.
“Sunday, 28.—Meeting was held as usual. Elder Parley P. Pratt preached on the gathering of Israel. In the afternoon Orson Pratt addressed the Church on the necessity of keeping the commandments of God. I spoke, and admonished the members of the Church individually to set their houses in order, to make clean the inside of the platter, and to meet on the next Sabbath to partake of the Sacrament, in order that by our obedience to the ordinances, we might be enabled to prevail with God against the destroyer, and that the sick might be healed.
“All this week chiefly spent among the sick, who in general are gaining strength, and recovering health.” 6
From the journal of Brigham Young:
“July 1839.—President Joseph Smith had taken the sick into his house and door-yard until his house was like an hospital and he had attended upon them until he was taken sick himself and confined to his bed several days.
“July 22, 1839.—Joseph arose from his bed of sickness, and the power of God rested upon him. He commenced in his own house and door-yard, commanding the sick, in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise and be made whole, and they were healed according to his word. He then continued to travel from house to house from tent to tent upon the bank of the river, healing the sick as he went until he arrived at the upper stonehouse, where he crossed the river in a boat, accompanied by several of the Quorum of the Twelve, and landed in Montrose.
“He walked into the cabin where I was lying sick, and commanded me, in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise and be made whole. I arose and was healed, and followed him and the brethren of the Twelve into the house of Elijah Fordham, who was supposed to be dying, by his family and friends. Joseph stepped to his bedside, took him by the hand and commanded him, in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise and be made whole. His voice was as the voice of God. Brother Fordham instantly leaped from his bed, called for his clothing and followed us into the street.
“We then went into the house of Joseph B. Noble, who also lay very sick, and he was healed in the same manner; and when, by the power of God granted unto him, Joseph had healed all the sick, he recrossed the river and returned to his home. This was a day never to be forgotten.
“During my further stay in Montrose I attended meetings and administered to the sick when I was well myself.” 7
From the memoirs of Wilford Woodruff:
“While I was living in this cabin in the old barracks we experienced, with the Prophet Joseph, a day of God’s power. It was a very sickly time; Joseph had given up his home in Commerce to the sick, and had a tent pitched in his dooryard and was living in that himself. The large number of Saints who had been driven out of Missouri were flocking into Commerce, but had no homes to go to, and were living in wagons, in tents, and on the ground; many, therefore, were sick through the exposure to which they were subjected. Brother Joseph had waited on them until he was worn out and nearly sick himself.
“On the morning of the 22nd of July, 1839, he arose, reflecting upon the situation of the Saints of God in their persecutions and afflictions. He called upon the Lord in prayer, the power of God rested upon him mightily, and as Jesus healed all the sick around Him in His day, so Joseph, the Prophet of God, healed all around on this occasion. He healed all in his house and dooryard; then, in company with Sidney Rigdon and several of the Twelve, went among the sick lying on the bank of the river, where he commanded them in a loud voice, in the name of Jesus Christ, to rise and be made whole, and they were all healed. When he had healed all on the east side of the river that were sick, he and his companions crossed the Mississippi River in a ferry-boat to the west side, where we were, at Montrose. The first house they went into was President Brigham Young’s. He was sick on his bed at the time. The Prophet went into his house and healed him, and they all came out together.
“As they were passing by my door, Brother Joseph said: ‘Brother Woodruff, follow me.’ These were the only words spoken by any of the company from the time they left Brother Brigham’s house till they crossed the public square, and entered Brother Fordham’s house. Brother Fordham had been dying for an hour, and we expected each minute would be his last. I felt the spirit of God that was overpowering His Prophet. When we entered the house, Brother Joseph walked up to Brother Fordham and took him by the right hand, his left hand holding his hat. He saw that Brother Fordham’s eyes were glazed, and that he was speechless and unconscious.
“After taking his hand, he looked down into the dying man’s face and said: ‘Brother Fordham, do you not know me?’ At first there was no reply, but we all could see the effect of the spirit of God resting on the afflicted man. Joseph again spoke. ‘Elijah, do you not know me?’ With a low whisper Brother Fordham answered, ‘Yes.’ The Prophet then said, ‘Have you got faith to be healed?’ The answer, which was a little plainer than before, was: ‘I am afraid it is too late; if you had come sooner, I think I might have been.’ He had the appearance of a man waking from sleep; it was the sleep of death. Joseph then said: ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ?’ ‘I do, Brother Joseph,’ was the response. Then the Prophet of God spoke with a loud voice as in the majesty of Jehovah: ‘Elijah, I command you, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to arise and be made whole.’
“The words of the Prophet were not like the words of man, but like the voice of God. It seemed to me that the house shook on its foundation. Elijah Fordham leaped from his bed like a man raised from the dead. A healthy color came to his face, and life was manifested in every act. His feet had been done up in Indian meal poultices; he kicked these off his feet, scattered the contents, then called for his clothes and put them on. He asked for a bowl of bread and milk and ate it. He then put on his hat and followed us into the street, to visit others who were sick.
“The unbeliever may ask, ‘Was there not deception in this?’ If there is any deception in the mind of the unbeliever, there was certainly none with Elijah Fordham, the dying man, or with those who were present with him; for in a few minutes he would have been in the spirit world, if he had not been rescued. Through the blessing of God he lived up till 1880, when he died in Utah; while all who were with him on that occasion, with the exception of one (myself) are in the spirit world. Among the number present were Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff.
“As soon as we left Brother Fordham’s house, we went into the home of Joseph B. Noble, who was very low. When we entered the house, Brother Joseph took Brother Noble by the hand, and commanded him, in the name of Jesus Christ, to arise and be made whole. He did arise, and was healed immediately.
“The case of Brother Noble was the last one of healing upon that day. It was the greatest day for the manifestation of the power of God through the gift of healing since the organization of the Church.” 8
These firsthand accounts, while differing somewhat in some details, are very much the same as to the places and people involved in these events, and they serve as conclusive evidence that July 22, 1839, and the period immediately surrounding this date were remarkable days in which Joseph Smith had the power of healing in great abundance. These accounts are equally valuable, however, for the personal insights they give into the Prophet Joseph’s character. His self-denying care of the sick, his personal visits, and the concern he showed for each individual all give evidence of his remarkable character and add to his stature as a man and a prophet of God.
Studying the accounts written by people who actually knew the Prophet makes him more real to me and makes his life and works all the more remarkable and wonderful.
Levi W. Hancock, Diary of Levi W. Hancock, copied by the Brigham Young University, 1960, pp. 97–99.
Jesse W. Crosby, The History and Journal of Jesse W. Crosby 1820–1869, copied by the Brigham Young University Library, 1940, p. 9.
John Lyman Smith, Diary of John Lyman Smith, copied by the Brigham Young University, 1940, p. 3.
Oliver B. Huntington, Diary of Oliver B. Huntington 1842–1847, Part I, copied by the Brigham Young University Library, 1942, pp. 42–43.
Ibid., p. 42.
Joseph Smith, History of the Church (Deseret Book Co., 1949), vol. 4, pp. 3–5.
Elden Jay Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1801–1844 (Salt Lake City: 1968), Smith Secretarial Service, pp. 49–50. Also found in vols. 25 and 26 of Millennial Star.
Matthias Cowley, ed., Wilford Woodruff, History of His Life and Labors as Recorded in His Daily Journals (Bookcraft, 1964), pp. 104–106.