Mark Albright is the president of the Washington DC South mission and shares these missionary stories with Meridian Magazine. This letter comes from Gracia N. Jones..
If you want to share a missionary story, send it to President Albright by clicking on the “email author button” by the title of the article. Please note the names of new converts and investigators may be changed to maintain privacy.
Dear President Albright,
My name is Gracia Normandeau Jones. On 17 March 2011, I will celebrate the fifty-fifth anniversary of my baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My grandmother, Coral, was a granddaughter of Joseph and Emma Hale Smith; her father, Alexander Hale Smith, was their third surviving son. Many people ask how it is I am a convert when I am a great-great granddaughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was several years after my conversion before I finally pieced together the family history and learned the reason my family had never spoken of Joseph Smith.
In the terrifying aftermath of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and his elder brother, Hyrum, at Carthage, Illinois, in 1844, my great-great-grandmother, Emma, was left widowed, with four minor children: adopted daughter, Julia, 12; and sons, Joseph III, 11 ½, Frederick, 8, Alexander Hale, 6, and David Hyrum born 4 ½ months later. Amid great distress, Emma chose not go west when the LDS Church was forced to leave Illinois in 1846. Except for a brief time when she fled to safety during the mob hostilities from September 1846 to January 1847, she brought up her children in Nauvoo. With the LDS Church gone from Nauvoo, and the neighborhood hostile toward anyone who professed belief in it, the Smith children missed being raised in the LDS faith.
About fifteen years after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and the exodus of the Mormons from Illinois, young Joseph Smith III was, in 1860, recruited by a group calling themselves “The Reorganization,” which soon became The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). His decision threw his family into a quandary, with the brothers reacting in different ways. Frederick held back, refusing to become involved, but young David Hyrum eagerly embraced the faith and became actively involved in writing hymns and preaching. Like Frederick, Alexander had held back from any religion, until Frederick suddenly died in 1862.
Shocked into considering the need to be baptized, as he understood from reading the Bible, Alexander feared for his brother Frederick’s spiritual fate. At the age of twenty-four, he accepted baptism into the RLDS Church. For nearly fifty years, Alexander served as a missionary, apostle, and counselor in the RLDS presidency and was presiding patriarch at the time of his death in 1909. Alexander, and his brother, David Hyrum, made several trips to Utah as RLDS missionaries, contending against the Utah Mormon faith with great zeal. The conflicts engendered during these trips gave rise to great animosity in the hearts of people on both sides of the issue, laying ground for prejudice which has persisted for over a century.
Joseph Smith III’s large family, and David Hyrum’s one son, Elbert, were headquartered in Lamoni, Decatur, Iowa; Alexander’s family of nine children remained in Illinois and then southern Iowa while he traveled in his world-wide ministry. Nearly all of the family was affiliated with the RLDS Church and remained closely knit in Iowa and Missouri until the mid-1920s. Then, driven by divisive conflicts over leadership style and economic crisis, which swept the United States in the 20’s, the Smith family was more or less scattered to the north, south, east and west.
It was the untimely financial crisis which forced my grandparents, Coral and Louis Horner, from their dairy farm in southern Iowa, another in western Nebraska, and another in Wyoming. In 1932 they finally moved to the Flathead Valley, settling in northwestern Montana, at Ronan, Lake County, where my mother, Lorena, the youngest of their four children finished high school and married my father, Rupert A. Normandeau, in 1935.
I was born, the second of my parent’s four children, in Ronan, Lake County, Montana. Our home was in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. My dad was a member of the Flathead Indian Tribe and through him I am also a member of that tribe. He developed a ranch west of Ronan in the community of Round Butte and created one of the first “Grade A” dairies in that part of the country. There was little time in our busy lives for organized church attendance. My parents were diligent in teaching their four children the good Christian principles of honesty, good manners, and the virtue of hard work. My parents always advocated tolerance for all people.
I had a mixed religious experience since my father’s family was Catholic and my mother, notwithstanding she was a great granddaughter of Joseph Smith, was Protestant, though she had never been baptized. Her mother was never able to live near an RLDS Church. Therefore, she sometimes served as organist in the Methodist Church and even taught Sunday school. She did not talk about her family’s past; she never discussed the story of the restoration with her children other than to tell them her grandfather had seen an angel. I never, as a child, heard my grandmother speak the name of Joseph Smith, though she did one time speak of “the martyrs.” I didn’t understand what she was referring to, and nobody explained.
One time, when I was in grade school, 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.”
The subject never came up again until years later, after our family had moved east of the Rocky Mountains, to Conrad, Montana. That fall I was about to enter into my senior year of high school. It was kind of tough trying to fit into a new town and begin in a new school. One thing I needed was to earn money, so I found a job babysitting for a family named Lederer. Dee Lederer had two youngsters and needed help. I fell in love with the children and eagerly began working after school and on weekends to assist this woman whose husband was away. It was an ideal situation, as we got along very well from the start. Soon after I began working for her, my mother took me aside and said, “Don’t you tell HER you are related to Joseph Smith; she’ll think you should be a Mormon.”
Having never heard the word “Mormon,” I couldn’t imagine what she meant. My mother’s attitude and tone of voice seemed to forbid my asking any questions. I thought it was really strange.
I was curious, but I didn’t dare ask. It was not too long before my curiosity about “Joseph Smith” would be satisfied.
One day my employer told me a really fantastic story about a man named Joseph Smith, whom she said, was “a prophet.” I didn’t understand. In my mind, the word sounded like “profit”. I thought “profit” was the difference between what you bought something for and what you could sell it for. She soon explained to me that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the Bible. I had heard those Bible stories, but I had no real concept of what a “prophet” was. It seemed like myth, but she made it sound very special. It only took a little discussion to realize that the Joseph Smith she was talking about was my great-great grandfather, who my mother said not to talk about. I was intrigued and curious. Soon I found myself telling her that my great-great grandfather was Joseph Smith. Her reaction was surprise and delight.
A few days later she called me in the morning to ask, “Can you come over after school? The missionaries want to give you a gift.”
Well, I had no idea what a “missionary” was, but I knew that those two cute guys living in her basement apartment were called “missionaries”. I had not met them, but I’d seen them a time or two at a distance. They were really cute guys, and I was seventeen years old. What could I say? “Sure, I’ll be there.”
At the time I had no concept of what was about to transpire; now after many years, I understand that she must have talked to those two young men, explaining to them who I was, preparing them to make a most important presentation.
When I walked into the kitchen that day, Dee Lederer introduced me to Elder Waldron and Elder Richins. In a few moments, one of them held out a little black book to me, and he said, “This is The Book of Mormon. It was translated by the gift and power of God, by your great-great grandfather, and it is true.”
As I took the book into my hands, I was swept over with a very intense feeling, almost like an electric shock, or vibration. In my mind echoed the words, “It’s true! It’s REALLY TRUE!”
As I look back over the span of more than half a century, I can still feel the powerful sense of assurance of the truth of the testimony just spoken to me and the truth of the book I was holding in my hands. Although I have spent years of research and study in The Book of Mormon, and about it, gaining deeper and deeper appreciation for the sacred witness it contains–that Jesus Christ was and is God’s son, and the Redeemer and Savior of all mankind–I do not know more surely now, in my spirit, that the Book of Mormon is really true, than I did at that moment. That spiritual witness remains as clear and strong with each passing year. Naturally, having such strong conviction of the truth of this message, I wanted to learn more. Because I was under age I had to have permission from my parents before the missionaries could teach me more about the Church. I was not prepared for the reaction of my normally tolerant parents. They were very disturbed; my father urged me, “Don’t get involved with those people!” (meaning the Mormons).
My questions to my mother were very upsetting to her. She would not answer my questions. She was very unwilling to talk about it at all. It took years before she was able to open up and reveal that she had not kept any secrets from me—she did not know anything other than that there was something in the past connected with her great-grandfather which could not be discussed. Her own mother’s reaction any time the subject came up had been very negative—very emotionally distressing. She had learned to just not talk about it.
Because I was so insistent that I wanted to take the missionary discussions, my parents reluctantly gave me permission. They had spent all my life up to that point teaching that we were not to be ignorant or intolerant of others. That worked in my favor and I was able to take the lessons at the Lederer home. However, when I finished the lessons and asked my father for permission to be baptized, he refused, saying, “Not under my roof.” His statement was clear and his meaning was that he felt I was too young to know what I was doing.
The time passed slowly. My missionaries were transferred. I managed to study The Book of Mormon, and came to appreciate the correlation between it and the Bible, which I also read for the first time. I came to appreciate the “marvelous work and a wonder” that had been revealed to the earth through the efforts of my great-great grandfather. My testimony grew stronger and I began to learn to have faith in my Heavenly Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. But I could not be baptized until after I turned of age.
Shortly after my eighteenth birthday I left home and prepared to be baptized. There was a baptism planned in Great Falls, Montana, which was in our district of the Western States Mission, 65 miles away from where I was living. When the day for my baptism came, nobody from my little Conrad Branch could attend. Everyone was involved in putting on a dinner. It was a very big event for them and everyone was involved. I would learn later, it was the birthday of the Relief Society organization, March 17th. My great-great grandmother, Emma was the first woman to serve as president of the Relief Society.
I was baptized by a strange missionary and confirmed by another strange missionary. Nobody there knew of my relationship to Joseph Smith. It didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything out of the ordinary. When I was confirmed, the blessing given me suggested that the Lord was very pleased with my choice to become a member of His church and that my talents and abilities would be useful to the Kingdom of God on this earth.
I joined the Church in 1956. I was the third descendant of Joseph and Emma to be baptized into the church. I am the first to remain active and the first to receive temple ordinances. The first descendant baptized was Joseph III, who was baptized in the Mississippi River by his father when he was a young boy. The second was a granddaughter, Alice Frederica Smith, daughter of Joseph and Emma’s son, Frederick. Alice joined the LDS Church[i] in Chicago, and was baptized on 6 January 1915. She then renounced her action, and was baptized by her cousin, Elbert A. Smith, into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She later renounced that religion as well.
She never married, so she had no posterity when she died in 1932.
Therefore, at the time of my baptism, I was the only descendant of Joseph Smith in the Church. That circumstance would stand for a good many years until a few of my cousins began to come into the waters of baptism. Michael Kennedy, baptized in 1973, became the first to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and now leads the Joseph Smith Jr., Family Organization, and founded the Joseph Smith Jr., and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society (www.josephsmithjr.org). Eventually, twenty-three years after I was baptized, my mother, Lorena H. Normandeau was baptized on 9 May 1979. Five years later, 9 May 1984, she entered the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah–the first descendant of Joseph Smith to serve as a full-time missionary in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her field of service: Independence, Missouri.
I received my patriarchal blessing, in 1956. In it I was told that it was not by accident that I had been brought into this Church, but that I would fulfill a beautiful mission. Understanding of that statement has unfolded line upon line, as my mission in this life has unfolded. From being a young teenaged convert, I then became a wife and mother, a teacher, a researcher, an author. In my books I boldly testify that I believe The Book of Mormon to be the word of God; I love the Prophet Joseph Smith and rejoice in the magnificent foundation he laid for the gospel to be preached in the entire world. I treasure the testimony he gives this generation that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of all who will heed and embrace this great plan of happiness.
In my confirmation blessing when I was told that my talents would be useful, I wondered what it meant. I cannot play the piano or organ in church. I do not sing except in groups. I have never developed creative skills for crafts or don’t have patience to make beautiful quilts. I wondered a long time before I figured out what talent I have that is useful to the Lord, sufficient to be labeled, ‘a beautiful mission.’ It is, I believe, the talent to see all sides of any issue. It is impossible for me to hold a grudge or bear any animosity toward anyone.
Now that I am engaged in the work of gathering the scattered posterity of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife Emma, I realize that I have the talent to simply love them. I know that some have heavy burdens of family prejudice which may never be lifted in this mortal life. I know that others are committed to the creeds and faiths in which they have found spiritual and social comfort or solace—they may never be ‘converted’. Let them worship who, what, when or how they may, I love them, and I wish to dispel the prejudice that binds the minds and hearts of so many.
My ongoing passion is to find each descendant, to bond with them as kin, through family reunions, or perhaps just through one-on-one visits, in person, or on the phone. I want to teach them to know and respect their ancestor, Joseph Smith, and his wife Emma. In this labor I am greatly blessed to have my wonderful husband, Ivor Jones, to share the burdens and the joys of our endless travels in search of the dear ones we have yet to find. Our dearest wish is that every descendant of Joseph and Emma could somehow come to know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God and that The Book of Mormon is really, really, true.
Gracia N. Jones
[i] Northern States Mission, “A Record of Baptism and Confirmations for 1915”, Northern States Mission Records, CR 375 8, reel #3091, (LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT), pages 22-263) For Annie’s parentage, see Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Ancestry and Posterity of Joseph Smith and Emma Hale, p. 579-580.)