Text is by Maurine Proctor. Photos by Scot Facer Proctor
In some ways the Lucy Mack/Joseph Smith Sr. reunion held this year the first weekend in August was like most of our family reunions-only super-sized. More than 1,000 people registered and joined together for three days. They came from 19 states as well as Canada, Australia and Romania. While they ate coleslaw and watermelon just like the rest of us at our reunions, they also took over “This is the Place” Heritage Park for a day and had reserved seating for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Spoken Word broadcast.
They almost reached the record for having the world’s biggest family reunion.
Their ancestors’ names-Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Mary Fielding, Samuel Smith-live in us as Church members. We can feel them in our own belief DNA, a sort of resonance in our souls. Their stories reside in us, woven like a golden thread through our spiritual sensibilities.
For those who gathered at this reunion, however, the Smiths are actually in their DNA, and you can’t help looking longer at some faces that seem to resemble Joseph, catch a face shape or nose that seems familiar, see some leadership energy that reminds you of the prophet.
The prophet had pled for his family in these words:
“O God, let the residue of my father’s house…ever come up in remembrance before thee and stand virtuous and pure in thy presence, that thou mayest save them from the hand of the oppressor, and establish their feet upon the rock of ages, that they may have place in thy house and be saved in thy kingdom, even where God, and Christ is, and let all these things be as I have said, for Christ’s sake. Amen – Joseph Smith Jr.
As it turns out he had great reason for concern. When Joseph and Hyrum were martyred at Carthage and Brigham led the Latter-day Saints west, the family was splintered. A shattered Emma stayed behind with her children in a hostile environment, including her son Joseph Smith III. He later formed a new church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lucy Mack, now widowed and in precarious health, stayed with Emma. Samuel had died 33 days after the martyrdom from injuries sustained when he went to warn his brothers.
Joseph’s other male siblings had all died, except for William who had been excommunicated. His sisters stayed behind with their families.
Samuel’s widow, Levira Clark Smith came West in 1851. Don Carlos’s widow Agnes Coolbrith Smith came West and then went on to California. Hyrum’s widow, Mary Fielding Smith, came to Utah with his children.
Do you Remember Who You Are?
It was a scattered family, no longer united in religion or united with each other. Over time, many of them would forget their origins. They would forget who they were. If you asked some of them who Joseph Smith was, they had no idea of his significance.
Kenny Duke, a descendent of Catharine, Joseph Smith’s sister, said, “I never knew about Joseph Smith at all until my teenage years. One day my uncle, who was a bulldozer operator, asked, do you know who you are? Teenagers know everything, but I didn’t know how to answer that question. He was well-versed in the family. He was an official in the RLDS church. He was a pastor in the church in Carthage. He said, “I want to take you and introduce you to your relatives.”
For Kim Smith, a direct descendent of Joseph Smith, it was worse. She said, “Growing up in my dad’s family, I saw animosity. I didn’t know my cousins who lived 15 miles down the road. I couldn’t figure out why we were so separated on so many issues. My mom taught me about Christ, but this didn’t seem like Christ like love.”
Kim’s first acquaintance with Joseph and Emma Smith was seeing their pictures in her grandmother’s house and feeling uncommonly drawn to them-as if she knew them and loved them, but she didn’t know who they were. As she learned, she was also indoctrinated with misunderstandings and some outright lies about who Brigham Young was. She was taught that Brigham Young had plotted the murder of Joseph Smith, that he had conspired to render Emma destitute.
These were hard prejudices to overcome, ground into the heart of an impressionable youngster, even in the face of facts to the contrary. Yet, Kim, eager to heal her family, began to research the issues that separated them, where the splits and contention came from, and it became her desire to help them heal. She gained a testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized.
Michael Kennedy, a third great grandson of Joseph Smith and the first one in the family to hold the Melchizedek priesthood, had never heard of Joseph, until one day in his little high school in Tonopah, Nevada, the teacher gave an assignment. They were supposed to write about someone in their family history.
Michael said, “Taking this assignment home I asked my father for some help. He told me there were three individuals he felt had something to do with American history in our family lines and named them off: Orville and Wilber Wright, Jonathan Swift, and some ambiguous person by the name of Joseph Smith.’ I asked my dad who he was, and was informed, He is the founder of the Mormons!’
His father left the room and came back with a big box and told Michael that everything he needed was in that box. “My father told me that he grew up never really knowing his family.”
For some of Joseph’s posterity, the loss of knowledge corresponded with distance. Some of Joseph Smith’s posterity moved to Australia, and 1/3 of his down line are there now.
Then, of course, there was a direct line of Smiths who led the RLDS church until 1995 when a non-descendent was appointed. The RLDS would change their name to the Community of Christ and begin to distance themselves from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Fielding Smith’s Prayers
What do you do about a family so divided as Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith Sr.
‘s family, especially in light of the paramount importance of eternal family in the teachings of their son Joseph? Wouldn’t this in fact just make Joseph weep? Where is the turning of the hearts to the fathers? Where the idea of remembering? Surely a mending and healing and a coming together was critical, especially as a debt of gratitude to this first family of the Restoration who had given so much.
Hyrum’s descendants were strong and numerous, numbering today near 30,000. Among them are prophets and apostles, including, President Joseph F. Smith, President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder M. Russell Ballard. Because of the gospel, they have a strong sense of their heritage, a vibrant family association. Other siblings of Joseph have few descendents and Joseph and Emma have a posterity that numbers at about 1300.
It mattered to bring all of this posterity together again and teach them who they were and what Joseph Smith did, because it mattered to him. A binding together was part of the covenant, unity a necessity to build Zion.
It also mattered to someone else. Vivian Adams, granddaughter of the prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, remembers that he used to say, “‘I pray every day that the descendents of the prophet will come into the Church.’ This was a constant theme on his mind.” She remember having a family home evening with him about it when she was as young as 16.
Line upon line, Joseph Fielding Smith’s prayers were answered, beginning with Gracia Jones. Like so many other of his posterity, Gracia did not know anything of her posterity.
“One time, when I was in grade school,” she said,” I brought home my history book. My mother was always interested in reading what we were studying in school. When she discovered a brief historical account of Joseph Smith having founded communities, and that he started a religious movement, she said to me, “Joseph Smith is your great-great grandfather, but don’t you ever tell anybody.”
Still, friends gave her a Book of Mormon, she read it, received a testimony of it, and didn’t realize she was doing anything unusual when she was baptized, the first of Joseph Smith’s posterity. When she came to Utah, it was arranged for her to meet Joseph Fielding Smith, and he burst into tears when he saw her.
He told her, “I have prayed all of my life for your family and I am so happy to see this day when I can see you and that you are a member of the church.” Gracia said, “He was very affectionate and very emotional. Sister Jessie Evans just enveloped me in her big hug.”
In 1969, Hugh B. Brown told her, “You have a great burden on your shoulders.” She was to begin gathering the names of Joseph Smith’s family.
A first reunion in Nauvoo was set for the descendents of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith for August of 1972. Gracia called relatives saying, “My grandmother is Coral Smith Horner, and I know that she is a cousin to your mother or your father. We’re beginning to gather names for a family reunion and I wonder if you’d be willing to help, and I’d just write as fast and furiously as possible to get their names and addresses down and we sent them invitations.”
It was agreed at that first family reunion that religion would not be discussed, “but we couldn’t help ourselves,” said Gracia. Still the overriding feeling was discovery of new cousins, of heritage that had been lost or disfigured, of slow awakening.
It was the beginning, and reunions were generally held every other year after that, usually in the Mid-west.
A Meeting Called by Elder Ballard
Then a turning point came in 1996. Elder Ballard called Smith family members who were members of the LDS Church to a meeting. Vivian Adams said, “When I walked into the room, I felt the spirit of family there. Elder Ballard explained, I cannot go to my grave and face Joseph and Hyrum having done nothing for Joseph’s family, and I’m bringing you together to do this.’ He introduced the Church’s family history staff and said, These people are going to train you how to find the descendents.’
Looking for descendancy involves additional and somewhat more complicated family history skills. For six months the family history staff trained and worked with this committee of Smiths (largely made up of Hyrum’s descendents) to find their family members. It was a job of dedication that involved several hours a week of commitment, and then ultimately meeting as a group once a month for years.
The night after Craig Frogley was called to chair the group he had a dream. He couldn’t sleep well that night and saw a forest focused on two trees. At the time he wasn’t familiar with the dreams that Joseph Smith Sr., had had, but he knew this was significant. He said, “The trees were remarkable, unusual trees. The wind was blowing, and as I looked at them I watched the branches of one of the trees in the wind begin to spread, and they reached out and began to grow with the rest of the trees until they became an umbrella with all these tree trunks underneath. “I didn’t understand the dream at the time I had it. It was just so vivid. During the morning hours as I lay there unable to go back to sleep, it distilled into my mind. We would be an umbrella that would support and spawn other Smith ancestor organizations, like the descendents of Joseph, to become strong and successful.”
Vivian Adams said, “The next year, we went to the temple in April and did the temple work for all of these people we had researched. This was one time in the Mt. Timpanogos temple when an entire session was full of Smith descendants from Samuel, Hyrum, and Joseph who were there to do the work for Joseph’s posterity.
“Our kids and our cousins were in various sealing rooms binding family. Even though Joseph wasn’t there physically, you could feel that he was there spiritually and we just had a remarkable time.’
Elder Ballard said, “We have done the temple work for all of Joseph’s posterity that we have found who are deceased. We will continue to do that. We will continue to bind his family to him as we find them, identify them, and can do the work for them.”
He said, “There’s been a great effort on the part of the Joseph Smith Jr. Association family to do that.
They have gone out all over the country trying to seek out and find their cousins.”
Gracia Jones and her husband Ivor, for instance, have been actively about this for many years. They take their camper van across the states seeking out cousins. When they meet them, they stay and visit, bringing out pictures and stories these cousins have never heard before. Sometimes the visit of a day turns into a week. The first priority is just to find each other, but often more follows. Two hundred of Joseph’s posterity are now members of the Church.
Family organizations and reunions are important to help people understand who they are, but for the Smiths that is a special privilege and burden. Their mantra is “Calling all Smiths” and they want to find them all.
Frances Orton, president of the group said, “We have a responsibility to honor those who did so much for us before. When we come together, we’re trying to honor their memory by going out and living good lives.”
They want the rising generation who carry this heritage not to be carried off in the current of the world. To this end, the reunion was filled with heritage activities. Children who were learning a Zion’s Camp song and making swords out of water noodles. Two dressed up as Joseph and Hyrum singing together. They tell stories, show films, have lectures. Their coming together is not only to know each other but also to be educated. They have a website filled with activities for family home evenings to acquaint children with Joseph Smith.
This year Elder Ballard told them this story: “Joseph F. Smith had never visited Carthage until 1906. In 1906 he found himself in Nauvoo with Charles and Preston Nibley. Charles Nibley was one of Joseph F. Smith’s dearest friends. He was the presiding bishop of the church.
“In Nauvoo, Joseph F. said to Preston, “This is where my father lifted me up from the ground to the horse that he was on and kissed me when I was five. I stood here and watched him and my uncle Joseph, whom I adored, ride off to Carthage.
“When Joseph F. and the Nibleys went to Carthage Jail, they walked into the room where Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor and Brother Richards were, The host who was showing them through the jail said this, “This stain on the floor is the blood of Hyrum Smith.”
Preston Nibley recorded that Joseph F. Smith went over and sat on the bed, put his hands over his face and wept, so much so the tears were bouncing off of the floor. The President said to Charlie, “Charlie, take me out of here. The greatest blood in this dispensation, perhaps in all dispensations, was split by our forefathers and given as a witness and a testimony of the restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Smith reunions are remarkable. In 2011 they met in Kirtland and re-enacted the temple dedication. They had the children chip stones from the very quarry used to build the temple.
What’s more they are the caretakers of the pioneer cemetery in Nauvoo. They have planted trees at a Lucy Mack Smith pavilion. They have had each family member in attendance create a time capsule with their testimony and family feelings to be opened in ten years.
Last year, one segment of the family spearheaded an “I Dig Nauvoo” project. It was an archaeological project to uncover Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr.’s log cabin in Nauvoo.
This year they sponsored the Joseph Smith Miracle 5K run to mark the 200th year since 7-year-old Joseph’s leg was saved by Dr. Nathan Smith, the only man in the nation who could have done that. (Read about the Miracle 5K Run here)
They’ve only just begun with their plans. Vivian Adams said they envision writing projects like gathering the Lucy Mack-Joseph Smith Sr. papers. They hope to do some restoration projects.
It might have been easy for the Hyrum Smith family to have been vibrant and connected because they knew who they were. Yet instead, for the Smiths to go back a generation and seek out each other for a wider bonding from a family that had been shredded is truly remarkable. With that same devotion, they intend to teach their children.
Dan Adams affirmed at the reunion opening, “Remember who Joseph Smith and his family were and how tall they stood. They were a powerful, spiritual people. They knew who they were. They knew where they were going. They saw with an eye of faith. The terrible ordeals they lived through became a blessing of fortitude and courage that they would need later on in life. In the Restoration, they were the first family of faith.
“This family goes from Palmyra, to Kirtland, to Far West, to Nauvoo. They teach like nobody’s business. They bring people in by the tens of thousands. They have visions. They restore things. They change people’s lives. That’s who we are. That’s the Smith blood that flows through our veins, to see what other people can’t see, to stand up and testify, to restore things, and build things and show people what they can do in difficult troubled times.”
That’s quite a charge to a family.
When Mother Smith saw her two sons, Joseph and Hyrum, martyred, she cried out in a mother’s grief, “O God, why hast thou forsaken this family?” He hadn’t.