It is a rare, almost unheard of thing, for the mother of a significant, influential historical figure to give us intimate details of his life from her unique perspective, but that’s what we have in Lucy Mack Smith’s remarkable book The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.
Lucy sat down with a scribe to tell her story in the bleak mid-winter of 1844-1845 just months after her two sons, Joseph and Hyrum, had been murdered at the Carthage Jail, followed 33 days later by the death of her son, Samuel. He had received injuries in a frantic ride trying to warn his brothers while being chased by a mob.
She wrote, she said, because “None on earth is so thoroughly acquainted as myself with the entire history of those of whom I speak” and she had almost “destroyed her lungs giving recitals about these things.” What she created was a priceless treasure that every Church member should know who wants to be aware of our history from a book that reads with the passion and detail of a novel.
After Lucy told her story, her scribe Martha Knowlton Coray, together with her husband Howard, edited Lucy’s words, called the Preliminary Manuscript, into an 1853 edition of the book. Howard Coray had been one of Joseph Smith’s clerks. Others made additional edits and the edition that most in the Church have seen has about one-fourth additional material, but about ten percent of Lucy’s original material is omitted.
In 1996, my husband, Scot and I, put together a new edition of Lucy’s book called The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. The Preliminary Manuscript, which apparently had been lost for years, was found again in the 1960’s, and we now had access to all her original words to re-edit a new version. We wanted to bring Lucy’s story back to her own language and include all the incidents and emotions that had been omitted.
The motivation was to find Lucy buried in the material, be true to her voice, and at the same time create a book that was accessible and inviting to a wide audience.
In telling her story, Lucy was candid, and sometimes emotional. She was fluent and real, and her spirituality burned like a fire.
So many times, most of us have wondered at the questions that motivated a 14-year old Joseph Smith to go into a grove, yearning to know about the state of his soul and what God wanted of his children. Most 14-year-olds are not so intensely interested in such deep ponderings.
Of course, the answer is that Joseph Smith’s ancient spirit had always been thus. He was, from before this world was, the prophet set apart to usher in the last dispensation. At the same time, he was nurtured by a real family in the real world and influenced by them.
As we pored over Lucy’s manuscript and came to know her every turn of phrase, the understanding came. Joseph’s spiritual intensity was so much like his mother’s. Her devotion to God, developed in her youth, was Joseph Smith’s landscape. Her love of the Lord was the air Joseph Smith breathed. We have no doubt that mothers deeply influence their children, and as we came to know her story well, it was clear that Joseph was certainly a product of this special mother.
Here are three moving moments from her story, quoted from our edition and her original words, that illustrate this point.
Was Joseph Smith eager to find the religion that would lead him to the Lord? He had certainly seen his mother’s intensity in this same desire.
Three years before Joseph was born, while Lucy was a young mother, she and her husband, Joseph Sr., lived in Randolph, Vermont. She became desperately sick with consumption, her fever raging, finally growing so weak that she could not bear a footfall in the room, nor to be spoken to except in whispers.
When Mr. Murkley, a Methodist minister, came to visit, she thought “‘He will ask me if I am prepared to die.'” I dreaded to have him speak to me, for said I to myself, “I am not prepared to die, for I do not know the ways of Christ,” and it seemed to me as though there was a dark and lonely chasm between myself and Christ that I dared not attempt to cross.”
After the minister left, “My husband came to my bed and caught my hand and exclaimed as well as he could amidst sobs and tears, Oh, Lucy! My wife! You must die. The doctors have given you up, and all say you cannot live.'”
Shaken to the core, Lucy said:
I then looked to the Lord and begged and pled that he would spare my life that I might bring up my children and comfort the heart of my husband. Thus I lay all night, sometimes gazing gradually away to heaven, and then reverting back again to my babies and my companion at my side, and I covenanted with God that if he would let me live, I would endeavor to get that religion that would enable me to serve him right, whether it was in the Bible or wherever it might be found, even if it was to be obtained from heaven by prayer and faith. At last a voice spoke to me and said, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Let your heart be comforted. Ye believe in God, believe also in me.”
In a few moments my mother came in and looked upon me and cried out, “Lucy, you are better.” My speech came and I answered, “Yes, Mother, the Lord will let me live. If I am faithful to my promise which I have made to him, he will suffer me to remain to comfort the hearts of my mother, my husband, and my children.”
From this time forward I gained strength continually. I said but little upon the subject of religion, although it occupied my mind entirely. I thought I would make all diligence, as soon as I was able, to seek some pious person who knew the ways of God to instruct me in the things of heaven.
Feeling covenanted to look for truth, her seeking was intense.
In the anxiety of my soul to abide by the covenant which I had entered into with the Almighty, I went from place to place to seek information or find, if possible, some congenial spirit who might enter into my feelings and sympathize with me.
At last I heard that one noted for his piety would preach the ensuing Sabbath in the Presbyterian church. Thither I went in expectation of obtaining that which alone could satisfy my soul-the bread of eternal life. When the minister commenced, I fixed my mind with breathless attention upon the spirit and matter of the discourse, but all was emptiness, vanity, vexation of spirit, and fell upon my heart like the chill, untimely blast upon the starting ear ripening in a summer sun. It did not fill the aching void within nor satisfy the craving hunger of my soul. I was almost in total despair, and with a grieved and troubled spirit I returned home, saying in my heart, there is not on earth the religion which I seek.
I must again turn to my Bible, take Jesus and his disciples for an example. I will try to obtain from God that which man cannot give nor take away. I will settle myself down to this. I will hear all that can be said, read all that is written, but particularly the word of God shall be my guide to life and salvation, which I will endeavor to obtain if it is to be had by diligence in prayer.
It is not surprising that this sounds like her son Joseph, for they are cut from the same cloth.
Like Joseph, Lucy Mack was willing to pay a steep price to play her part in bringing forth the gospel. She said, I find that “all like the purchase, few the price will pay.”
In the early fall of 1829, a group of what Lucy calls “religionists” in Palmyra hatched a scheme to stop the printing of the Book of Mormon. They determined to come to the Smith home while the men were away and Lucy was alone and request her to read to them from the manuscript. Then one of them would seize it from her and throw it into the fire.
Oliver Cowdery had heard of the scheme and alerted Lucy. All knew the men were after the manuscript by one device or another and a guard was posted around the Smith home.
Lucy took the manuscript and deposited it into a chest under the head of her bed, so she could rest on it and protect it. As you can imagine, it was a restless night, and instead of sleep, she fell into a series of musings about all that transpired that had brought them to this point.
She thought of her lifelong quest to find God and how unceasingly she had looked for Him. She remembered that, “I had always believed confidently that God would raise up someone who would effect a reconciliation among those who desired to do his will at the expense of all other things. But what was my joy and astonishment to hear my own son, though a boy of fourteen years of age, declare that he had been visited by an angel from heaven.”
She considered Joseph’s receiving the plates and her excitement to know that the translation was complete. Then she said:
At last, as if led by an invisible spirit, I came to the time when the messenger from Waterloo informed me that the translation was actually completed. My soul swelled with a joy that could scarcely be heightened, except by the reflection that the record which had cost so much labor, suffering, and anxiety was now, in reality, lying beneath my own head-that this identical work had not only been the object which we as a family had pursued so eagerly, but that prophets of ancient days, angels, and even the great God had had his eye upon it. “And,” said I to myself, “shall I fear what man can do? Will not the angels watch over the precious relic of the worthy dead and the hope of the living? And am I indeed the mother of a prophet of the God of heaven, the honored instrument in performing so great a work?” I felt that I was in the purview of angels, and my heart bounded at the thought of the great condescension of the Almighty.
Thus I spent the night surrounded by enemies and yet in an ecstasy of happiness.
Of course, the religionists, did pay Lucy a visit and were disappointed that she told them about everything on the manuscript but would not show them. When they insisted she show them the manuscript, she said:
“Deacon Beckwith,” said I, “even if you should stick my body full of faggots and burn me at the stake, I would declare, as long as God should give me breath, that Joseph has that record, and that I know it to be true.”
Like Joseph, Lucy knew how to find a private place to pray and call down the powers of heaven.
When Lucy and her family were leaving Ohio for Missouri, they waded through many difficulties and trials. She said:
We traveled on through many trials and difficulties. Sometimes we lay in our tents through a driving storm. At other times we traveled on foot through marshes and quagmires, exposing ourselves to wet and cold. Once we lay all night in the rain, which descended in torrents, and I, being more exposed than the other females, suffered much with the cold, and upon getting up in the morning, I found that a quilted skirt which I had worn the day before was wringing wet, but I could not mend the matter by changing that for another, for the rain was still falling. I wore it in this situation for three days. In consequence of this, I took a severe cold and was very sick, so that when we arrived at the Mississippi I was unable to sit up at any length and could not walk without assistance.
Feeling her strength slacken, Lucy held on until she could find a place to pray:
I was no longer able to ride in a sitting posture, but lay on a bedstead carefully covered, as the fresh air kept me coughing continually. My husband did not much expect me to live to the end of the journey, for I could not travel sometimes more than four miles a day. But as soon as we arrived at Huntsville, he sought a place where we might stop for some time, so that all that nursing could do for me could be done.
Going as far as Huntsville was my own request, but they did not know why I urged the matter. The fact was, I had an impression that if I could get there and be able to find a place where I could be secluded and uninterrupted in calling upon the Lord, I might be healed. Accordingly, I seized upon a time when they were engaged, and by the aid of staffs I reached a fence, and then followed the fence some distance till I came to a dense hazel thicket. Here I threw myself on the ground and thought it was no matter how far I was from the house, for if the Lord would not hear me and I must die, I might as well die here as anywhere. When I was a little rested, I commenced calling upon the Lord to beseech his mercy, praying for my health and the life of my daughter Catharine. I urged every claim which the scriptures give us and was as humble as I knew how to be, and I continued praying near three hours. At last I was entirely relieved from pain, my cough left me, and I was well.
Lucy, whose devotion was with real intent, was a hand-picked mother for Joseph Smith. What she taught him in so many words, we do not know. What she exemplified is clear, and it is just as clear that he did not miss it.
With Lucy’s example before us, we have to ask ourselves, what do our children see? What do they feel when they are with us? What do we reflect from our heart?