Bradley K. Young
Was Joseph Smith Sr. an “unmoored” and “oft-defeated” father who lived a life, “blighted by shame?” This is the picture Richard L. Bushman paints in his recent biography on the Prophet Joseph titled Rough Stone Rolling—but is it accurate?
Joseph Smith Sr. as Patriarch
Alvin may have taken the lead because his discouraged father could not. Alvin had cosigned the articles for the land purchase in 1821, suggesting he was serving as auxiliary family head. Joseph Sr., worn down by setbacks, may have partially abdicated [or failed to undertake] family leadership.1
Only after Alvin’s death when Joseph was seventeen did responsibility for family leadership fall on Joseph, under the tacit family agreement that Joseph Sr. was not fully adequate. He was a gentle, disappointed man with an inclination to compensate for his failures with magic and drink.2
These critical and belittling comments by Bushman about a weak and failed father who lost his family’s respect are starkly contrasted by the voice of the Lord.
In a revelation given January 19, 1841, four months following the death of the Patriarch, the Lord revealed that His “aged servant Joseph Smith, Sen., . . . sitteth with Abraham at his right hand, and blessed and holy is he, for he is mine.” (D&C 124:19) This becomes more significant when we understand that “Abraham . . . Isaac also and Jacob . . . have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.” (D&C 132:37)
Deserving a place among the great patriarchs of old is hardly a blessing reserved for a failed father.
The feelings of the Lord are, if possible, even more evident in these words from a blessing given by Joseph Jr. to his father in 1835:
Blessed of the Lord is my father [Joseph Sr.], for he shall stand in the midst of his posterity and shall be comforted by their blessings when he is old and bowed down with years, and shall be called a prince over them, and shall be numbered among those who hold the right of patriarchal priesthood, even the keys of that ministry: for he shall assemble together his posterity like unto Adam; and the assembly which he called shall be an ensample for my father, for this it is written of him: . . .
So shall it be with my father: he shall be called a prince over his posterity, holding the keys of the patriarchal priesthood over the kingdom of God on earth, even the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and he shall sit in the general assembly of patriarchs, even in council with the Ancient of Days when he shall sit and all the patriarchs with him— and shall enjoy his right and authority under the direction of the Ancient of Days. . . .
And again, blessed is my father, for the hand of the Lord shall be over him, and he shall be full of the Holy Ghost; for he shall predict whatsoever shall befal[l] his posterity unto the latest generation, and shall see the affliction of his children pass away, and their enemies under their feet: and when his head is fully ripe he shall behold himself as an olive tree whose branches are bowed down with much fruit.
Behold the blessings of Joseph by the hand of his progenitor, shall come upon him <the> head of my father and his seed after him, to the uttermost; even he shall be a fruitful bough: he shall be as a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well whose branches run over the wall, and his seed shall abide in strength, and the arms of their hands shall be made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob, and the God of his fathers: Even <the God> of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, shall help him and his seed after him:
even the Almighty shall bless him with blessings of heaven above and his seed after him, and the blessings of the deep that lieth under: and his seed shall rise up and call him blessed. He shall be as the vine of the choice grape when her clusters are fully ripe: and he shall also possess a mansion on high, even in the Celestial Kingdom.3
In the very least, this prophesies Joseph Smith Sr.’s role as sitting in the very counsel with Adam, the priesthood leader over this earth,4 and others including Abel, Seth, Melchizedek, Enoch, Noah and so forth. Because the Lord is, “no respecter of persons” (D&C 38:16), this blessed position must be a direct reflection of Father Smith’s personal character.
The Lord’s Trust in Him as a Father
The Lord’s evident trust in Joseph Smith Sr. as a father is made clear by the Angel Moroni’s command:
He then again related unto me all that he had related to me the previous night, and commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments which I had received. (Joseph Smith—History 1:49)
Joseph Smith Sr. was in tune enough with the spirit to immediately recognize the truth of Joseph’s words and give the following counsel:
He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger. (Joseph Smith—History 1:50)
Elder M. Russell Ballard stated in the 1991 October General Conference:
The Lord foreordained his [Joseph Smith Jr.’s] father, Joseph Smith, Sr., who is spoken of in the holy scriptures, to be one of the earthly parents of the Prophet. . . . Joseph Smith, Sr., was in tune with the Spirit of the Lord. He knew that his young son spoke the truth. He not only believed the boy’s words but encouraged him in the work he had been called to do.
Joseph, Sr., endured ridicule and persecution because of his prophet son’s experiences and claims. Yet, he was unwavering in his loving support and defended his son.
He saw and handled the plates of gold from which the Book of Mormon was translated and testified throughout his life to the truthfulness of that sacred book. His name remains firmly affixed, with those of the other witnesses to the Book of Mormon, in the front pages of that second witness of Jesus Christ. On one occasion he was imprisoned and told he would be released if he would deny the Book of Mormon. Not only did he not deny it, but he converted two persons during his thirty-day confinement.5
President Ezra Taft Benson also added his own witness of the Patriarch’s greatness:
In this dispensation, I think of Joseph Smith, Sr., the first person to give credence to his prophet-son’s testimony. . . . I revere these noble men, not just because they were great prophets, but because they were great fathers who realized what the Lord required of them, and they lived up to that expectation.6
These scriptural and prophetic statements again starkly contrast with Bushman’s unflattering portrayal of Father Smith.
Foreordained By The Lord
Those who understand the bloodline of the Prophet Joseph as both the heir of Judah and Ephraim, as laid out in D&C 113, will recognize the significance of this statement by Brigham Young as it relates to the chosen and foreordained position of Father Smith.
The Lord had his eye [on Joseph Smith], and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family and that blood as it has circulated from its foundation to the birth of that man.7
As Seen By Those Nearest to Him
In addition to challenging Joseph Smith Sr.’s role as patriarch and his standing in the eyes of the Lord, Bushman also speaks negatively of how the Smith children viewed their father.
. . . [Joseph Smith Sr.] feared his sons’ scornful laughter. . . . All the boys loved and honored their father, Joseph Jr. particularly, but their affection may have included sympathy for a life blighted by shame.8
In contrast to Bushman’s claim, Joseph Smith himself recorded the admiration, respect and deep honor he held for his father. His personal diary records:
Sunday 11th [October 1835] visited my Father who was very sick. In secret prayer in the morning the Lord said, “My servant thy father shall live.” 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 again, 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 renders them capable of administering the most wholsom advice.9
Certainly, being blessed with the company and advice of so great a man as Joseph Smith Sr. would truly be one of the “greatest earthly blessings”.
Another first-hand witness of Joseph Smith Sr.’s character was President Lorenzo Snow who said:
I do not know that any man among the Saints was more loved than Father Smith; and when any one was seriously sick Father Smith would be called for, whether it was night or day. He was as noble and generous a man as I have ever known.10
At the time of his death, Joseph Smith, Sr., was described as “a man faithful to his God and to the Church in every situation and under all circumstances through which he was called to pass.”11
Attacks on the Prophet
Bushman’s statements about the character of Joseph Smith Sr. subsequently call into question the reasons and motivation for Joseph Jr.’s prophetic work; this is perhaps because it is hard to call the tree bad and the fruit good. Consider these three examples taken directly from Rough Stone Rolling.
If there was a personal motive for Joseph Smith Jr.’s revelations, it was to satisfy his family’s religious want and, above all, to meet the need of his oft-defeated, unmoored father.12
Joseph Jr. eventually restored his father’s dignity by giving him an honored place in the church. If there was any childhood dynamic at work in Joseph Jr.’s life, it was the desire to redeem his flawed, loving father, but was this enough to make him a prophet?13
The Smiths have been diagnosed as a dysfunctional family that produced a psychologically crippled son.14
These statements strike at the core of Joseph’s prophetic calling and are, consequently, also an attack on the Book of Mormon, priesthood power and keys, and the very message of the Restoration.
Brigham Young, in simple defense of the Prophet Joseph, had this to say:
I rose up, and in a plain and forcible manner told them that Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to hell.15
It is only fair that we let the Prophet Joseph have the concluding words:
I have remembered the scenes of my childhood. I have thought of my father who is dead; who died by disease which was brought upon him through suffering by the hands of ruthless mobs. He was a great and a good man. The envy of knaves and fools was heaped upon him [and still is], and this was his lot and portion all the days of his life.
He was of noble stature, and possessed a high, and holy, and exalted, and a virtuous mind, His soul soared above all those mean and groveling principles that are so subsequent to the human heart. I now say, that he never did a mean act that might be said was ungenerous, in his life, to my knowledge.
I love my father and his memory; and the memory of his noble deeds, rests with ponderous weight upon my mind; and many of his kind and parental words to me, are written on the tablet of my heart.
Sacred to me, are the thoughts which I cherish of the history of his life, that have rolled through my mind and has been implanted there, by my own observation since I was born.
Sacred to me is his dust, and the spot where he is laid. Sacred to me is the tomb I have made to encircle o’re his head. Let the memory of my father eternally live.16
“Was Joseph Smith Senior a failure as a father? Was he a poor provider, oft defeated and unmoored? Did he have a problem with alcohol and other vices?“
- Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print. 42, emphasis added
- Ibid. 55, emphasis added
- “Blessing to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, between circa 15 and 28 September 1835.” The Joseph Smith Papers. Web. 06 Jan. 2017. <http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/blessing-to-joseph-smith-sr-and-lucy-mack-smith-between-circa-15-and-28-september-1835/1>
- Doctrine and Covenants 78:16, 107:55; Joseph Smith: “This then is the nature of the priesthood, every man holding the presidency of his dispensation and one man holding the presidency of them all even Adam, and Adam receiving his presidency and authority from Christ, but cannot receive a fulness, untill Christ shall present. the kingdom to the Father which shall be at the end of the last dispensation. (Words of Joseph Smith, 5 Oct. 1840, p. 40-41); Joseph Fielding Smith: “he [Michael] was one of the greatest of the intelligences, and was sent here to this earth to stand at the head of his posterity, to rule over them through the ages of eternity.” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:90)
- Ballard, Russell M. “The Family of the Prophet Joseph Smith”. Ensign, October 1991, emphasis added
- Benson, Ezra Taft. “Great Things Required of Their Fathers”. Ensign, April 1981, emphasis added
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses, Vol 7, 289-290
- Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print. 42, emphasis added
- “History, 1838–1856, Volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838].” The Joseph Smith Papers. Web. 06 Jan. 2017. <http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-b-1-1-september-1834-2-november-1838/82> 628. see also Joseph Smith. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. 61-62, emphasis added
- Snow, Lorenzo. qtd in LeRoi C. Snow, “How Lorenzo Snow Found God,” Improvement Era, Feb. 1937, 84.
- History of the Church, 4:192.
- Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print. 26-27, emphasis added
- History of Brigham Young, DNW, 10 Feb. 1858, 386
- “Journal, December 1841–December 1842.” The Joseph Smith Papers. Web. 06 Jan. 2017. <http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1841-december-1842/57> 57.