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Family according to Lucy, Joseph, and Emma

June 17, 2014


After class today, I went to the HBLL (BYU’s very excellent library), and walking inside I was whisked back ten years and overwhelmed by the familiarity of the sight in this photo, the feel of pulling back the door’s weight, even the smell. I hadn’t realized the library had a smell! But there it was, right in my nose, and I loved it.

Here’s the other thing: I drove right up to that library because I HAVE AN A-LOT PARKING PASS. I can hear that you’re impressed all the way through the interwebs. BYU parking is about as bad as parking in downtown Chicago and almost as bad as NYC. Anyone who has fought this battle can imagine the powah I feel. I can park freakin’ anywhere but in handicapped and Deans and Directors spots. The feeling is like a grown-up version of beating an entire video game.

In class today we talked about the First Family of Mormondom, looking at Lucy Mack Smith’s history as well as the correspondence between Joseph and Emma that spanned 1832-39. Another question we considered was this: If the Doctrine and Covenants was all you had to go by, what image of the Mormon family would you get? Finally, we also discussed a chapter, “The ‘Lineage of my Preasthood’ and the Chain of Belonging” from Samuel Morris Brown’s book, In Heaven as It Is on Earth. The time flew. Suddenly I looked up, and although the two hours was gone, I was ready for two more.


Class Discussion (selections)

How reliable of a narrator is Lucy? True, she’s dictating it rather than writing it herself and this years after the events she has described, and she’s doing her darnedest to save face for her family once all her sons are dead or discredited. As one of the seminar members put it, “She’s trying to create a holy family.” So it definitely has an agenda; that is obvious enough in the accounts of how each hardship, sickness, and setback prepared them to accept and uphold Joseph Jr.’s message and calling. Still, without this record we wouldn’t have the story of Joseph’s leg disease or Joseph Sr.’s visions, and her account suggests, as another colleague put it, that the latter-day Restoration was “not Joseph Smith-driven but Smith family-driven.” One class member suggested that the record bears a lot of resemblance to hagiographic texts with its multiple miracles and accounts of martyrdom.

I was struck thinking about Lucy, by then an older woman, bereft of almost all her family and left behind as the Saints moved west. She had to wonder, even if only privately, what it was all for. From the chair in the library of an institute devoted to Mormon studies at Mormon university that is just one small part of a church with millions of members across the world it’s easy to look back now and call those Smith family sacrifices worthy and meaningful. But Lucy didn’t know all of that. Did she wonder if ultimately it would mean anything at all?

Of Joseph and Emma’s letters, Richard said, “We see a lot of Joseph’s needs. He’s hungry for emotion. He gives it and also asks for it.” Often in the letters he asserts to Emma that he is her friend and is so emotional and expressive. For example, on November 4, 1838, Joseph writes Emma from Independence, Missouri after he had been taken prisoner by the state militia four days earlier:

I hope you will be faithful and true to every  trust, I cant write much in my situation, conduct all matters as your circumstances and necesities require, may God  give you wisdom and prudance and sobriety which <I> have every reason to believe you  will, those little <childrens> are subjects of my meditation continually, tell them that Father is yet alive, God grant that he may see  them again Oh Emma for God sake do not forsake me nor the truth but remember, if I do <not> meet you again  in this life may God grant that we may  <may we> meet in heaven, I cannot express my feelings, my heart is full, Farewell Oh my kind and affectionate Emma I am  yours forever your Hu[s]band and true friend

Reading through their letters I felt once again not envious of Emma’s situation.


Today’s reading
Lucy Mack Smith, History of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1902).  Chaps. 8-19,  Chaps. 33-35, 37-38, ,41, 47, 49, 51, 53.

Joseph and Emma Smith correspondence.

1832/ 6 June; 13 October

1834/18 May; 4 June

1836/ 19 August

1837/ 25 April; 3 May

1838/ 4 November; 12 November;1 December

1839/ 7 March; 21 March; 4 April; 9 November

Family in the Doctrine and Covenants. If you had only the Doctrine and Covenants to go by, what picture of Mormon family life would you get?

Samuel Morris Brown, “The ‘Lineage of My Preasthood’ and the Chain of Belonging,” in In Heaven as It Is on Earth, 203-47.



“When Joseph Smith didn’t have activity, he became depressed.” -Richard

“The great shock of Joseph Smith’s theology at the end of his life is that God is married, that he has children. The whole nineteenth century has to deal with this.” -Richard

When I told Claudia and Richard that I’d been released as the stake music chair and called to be a seminary teacher instead, Claudia said, I believe with some disappointment at the news, “Oh, anyone can be a seminary teacher!”



Brigham Young tried to destroy all the copies of Lucy’s history that he could. Perhaps due to anxiety over church leadership succession?

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