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.