The Early Life of Joseph Smith – powered by Happy Scribe
Here in the misty mountains of Vermont, there stands a 38 and a half foot tall shaft of granite on top of a 50 foot tall monument built to the life and memory of the a Joseph Smith. I’ve come here to explore the early life of Joseph Smith, his family roots, where he came from, and the environment of the early American Republic that allowed Joseph Smith to found a faith that would eventually reach around the world. Hi, my name’s Casey Grifis and I teach Church history at Brigham Young University. One of the things I love to do most is to visit Church history sites and learn about the early restoration. Right now, I’m getting ready to go on a trip to Vermont to view the birthplace of the Prophet Joseph Smith. But before I go, I want to talk to an expert so that I’m prepared when I get there. I’m going to meet with Ken Alford, a professor of Church history, a retired Colonel in the US Army, and someone who knows a lot about Joseph Smith and American history. Hi, Ken.
Hi. How are you doing? Come on in.
Thanks so much for meeting with us. Hey, have a seat. Now, we’re getting ready to head out to New England. I heard you might be able to give us some context and background before we go there. Sure.
Happy to. Listen, I love New England. It’s just the most wonderful place to visit. I’m so excited that you’re able.
To go. What can you tell us about Joseph Smith’s New England heritage?
Well, New England is named perfectly. New England is very English. The area where the Smiths live and where Joseph’s ancestors come from is very New England. It’s a new country. It’s a very patriotic area. They’re a faithful people, not often associated with religions per se, but a very faithful people, Bible reading people, hard working, industrious. They’re the typical Yankees that we have in stereotype. Joseph’s family fits many of the stereotypes. Joseph is so close to the Revolution, and we don’t always think of this, but Joseph has a grandfather, Solomon Mack, who serves not only in the Revolution, but served in the French and Indian War. Joseph is getting this heritage very closely. Joseph makes the statement that from his grandfather’s knees, he learned to love liberty. And so it’s just inculcated in all of New England. They’re proud to be Americans. They’re proud of their heritage, and they’re just excited for this new nation. This is something that hasn’t been done in the world before, and liberty is just an important thing for them.
So, Ken, the first place, actually where we fly into is Boston. Are there any points of interest you think we should go see?
Oh, I love Boston. Boston is just a wonderful place. You have to do the Freedom Trail if you go to Boston. There’s more to see in Boston than you’ll have time to see.
Now that we have a firmer grasp on some American history during Joseph Smith’s time, I say goodbye to Ken and we head to the airport to board a plane from Salt Lake City, Utah. We fly over most of the United States and then arrive in Boston, Massachusetts to begin our journey of exploring Joseph Smith’s early life. But first, if it’s your first time in Boston, you have to explore all the American history sites. This is my first time in Boston. I’ve got to say, I’m impressed. It’s an exciting city full of history and attractions. We follow Ken’s suggestions and explore the Freedom Trail, a path you follow from historical site to site to learn mainly about the American Revolution and how we sought freedom from tyranny. This spirit of freedom would have ringed in the ears of Joseph Smith and his ancestors. We start with the Freedom Trail and pass through places like the Old State House with a marker representing the Boston Massacre. We pass by Paul Revere’s house, the oldest building in Boston. We finally make it to one of the places I was most looking forward to, the USS Constitution. At the end of our walking tour, we arrived to a monument memorializing the battle at Bunker Hill, and we make the smart, or not so smart decision to climb to the top of it, all 294 steps.
But at the end, the view was a great way to end our trip. But it was so tiring. One scholar called New England the birthplace and seedbed of Mormonism. Many early Latterday Saint leaders came from this area. Joseph Smith even had several ancestors on the Mayflower. And the American Revolution, in its aftermath of free government and freedom of religion, helped Joseph Smith build the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. To get this message home, there’s one final location I want to visit. So we leave Boston and drive to Concord. This is one of the main locations where the Revolutionary War began. Here stands another monument memorializing this battle, and behind it, the famous Old North Bridge passing over the Concord River. Here at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts is where some of the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. Joseph Smith’s grandparents participated in the American Revolution. In fact, one of them, Aysel, believed that just like this war had revolutionized the world politically, one of his descendants, he prophedied, would do something to revolutionize the religious world. When Aysel heard about the visions of his grandson, Joseph Smith Jr, Aysel stated, I always knew that God was going to raise up some branch of my family to be a great benefit to mankind.
Now that we’ve explored some great American history and have a better understanding of the spirit of freedom that would influence Joseph in the Church, I think it’s time for us to take a closer look at Joseph Smith’s ancestors. However, since I couldn’t visit every location, I’m sending Xander from the video team to explore this next site.
So I’m in Boston right now. I got here a day earlier than Casey. Top field is only about a half hour north of Boston. The reason why we want to go see it is because five generations of Joseph Smith’s family on his father’s side lived there. And it all started in 1638 when Robert Smith, who was only 15 years old, emigrated from England and arrived in Boston. He then married and had 10 children, and they ended up settling in Toxville. So we’re going there and we’re looking for a cemetery with a monument dedicated to Joseph Smith’s ancestors. We drive through the autumn countryside and make our way to a small hilly cemetery. Okay, I’m now in the Pine Grove Cemetery. When Latterday Saints think of church history sites to visit, Toxville is probably not the first place in mind. But it was here in 2022 when LDS Church Apostle, Elder M. Russell Ballard visited and dedicated a special monument here honoring the Smith ancestors. And it looks like here’s the monument right here. Here stands a monument remembering the Smith family of Topsville, Massachusetts. Elder Ballard is a descendant of the Smith family through Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum.
This town and this cemetery have special and personal significance to him, and he returns here often.
There are so many places we wanted to see but didn’t have time. The family of Lucy Max Smith, young Joseph’s mother, lived in the area of Gilson, where you’ll find the approximate site where she was born and the gravestones for her family. They eventually moved north to Tonbridge. Here you can see some of the buildings for the business that Lucy’s brother managed. It was in Tonbridge where Lucy would eventually meet Joseph Smith senior. While here I was able to view the historical records of their marriage and even see some potential foundations of their first home. It was hard times back then, and they would move to several locations in this area. With all this helpful information in mind, we’re finally ready to explore Joseph Smith’s birthplace. So we hop in the car and head to Sharon, Vermont. Now that we’ve explored a little bit about the environment Joseph Smith grew up in and his ancestry, we’re actually on our way to Sharon, Vermont, his birthplace. So we’re headed to the home of Joseph Smith, senior and Lucy Max Smith, where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born. We cruise through the fall leaves in the rolling hills of Vermont and finally pull up into the historic birthplace of Joseph Smith.
There’s also a Chapel here in camping facilities nearby. It’s a rainy and misty day, so we take refuge in the visitor center while I wait for a special guest. Here, visitors can learn about the early life of Joseph Smith, from his birth to his young life as a child. After the rain clears up, I head outside to meet David McDowell, a seminaries and Institute’s coordinator and a teacher out here in New England, who’s also an expert in Church and American history.
Hi, David. Hi, Casey.
Nice to see you. Nice to see you. We came here to learn a little bit more about Joseph Smith’s ancestry and background. This is the place where he was born, right?
This is the place. This is the memorial stone that was placed here in 1905 to help us remember the birth of Joseph Smith.
Okay. And we actually know the place.
Yeah. Let me come show you a.
Couple of places up here. Yeah, let’s walk up here. Dave takes me just up the stairs through the sacred site to the exact spot where Joseph Smith’s life began.
And here’s the spot where Joseph Smith was born.
This is the actual physical location.
The actual spot.
Any of the stones here.
From the time? Just this one is the original doorstep to the home. And then the other original stone is inside the visitor center. The hearth stone is there.
This is the original fireplace hearth stone used by Joseph’s family to cook food and to build fires on.
You can tell that it wasn’t a large home. This was a family of three children. Joseph and Lucy came here after financial setbacks, and they’d raise their three kids here for a few years and make a go of it with the difficult farming that was in this area. When I think of this little home here, I think of little boys jumping off this doorstep, and I think of little boys thrilled to have a baby brother. And Sifronia is just little at this time. She probably was excited, too. But it’s a small family. You can picture what that’s like when your kids are little and you just have this little house on the hill up in the cold and you stay close to that fire and you do the best you can to eke out a living in such a place.
It’s a sparse existence, right?
It is. They certainly weren’t getting rich here. This was a hard place. Let’s go up to the monument.
Now, this is impressive. How tall and how much does it weigh? What are the specifications?
So it’s 50’10 tall from bottom to top, and the about 12 feet is that stone, that bottom piece you can see. But there’s one solid shaft of granite for the obelisk on top that’s 38 and a half feet tall.
That’s all one piece.
All one piece. And why do you think it’s 38 and a.
Half feet? Joseph Smith is 38 and a half when he died.
You got it. So they wanted to symbolize Joseph.
And so you’re telling me there are several pieces here, but that entire shaft was cut from one granite boulder? Yes. And then hauled here.
In a remarkable way.
Julius Wells felt inspired to put up a stone monument for Joseph Smith here. One thing after another, miraculously fell into place. They found a 40 foot piece of granite in a nearby quarry. They transported 40 tons on railroads and wagons. It took them 33 days to move it just five miles. They had dozens of horses and even oxen pulling it. And the weather miraculously worked in their favor to move the monument to its final location.
Just to give you an impression of how impressive this is, there are still people that work at the Barry Quarry. They’ll come down here just to see it. They report that it’s the largest piece of polished granite they’ve ever seen. They’ll report that it looks brand new. Looks like it was just cut yesterday to them. They report that they would never transport something this big in one piece. That gigantic obelisk is just too big, too heavy to transport, even with our modern technology. So the fact that they got it here on a train and then on wagons is really quite impressive.
The creation and transportation of this grand monument is a story of small miracles. Much like the early life of Joseph Smith’s family, being transported from place to place by the Lord, and even amid the hardest trials, still finding God’s miracles and mercy. A lot of miracles have happened in this place.
It’s true. It’s true. And I think that just having it here is a miracle. I would like to show you one more place where there was a miracle that took place in.
Joseph’s life. Let’s go take a look. Let’s go.
Take a look at that.
Joseph’s younger years were spent around this area, but eventually they’d move from this location. David takes me Southeast to Lebanon, where the Smith family would experience a medical miracle saving the young Prophet Joseph Smith.
All right, here we are in West Lebanon. This is their fifth move, but they do very well here. And then the typhoid fever comes. Thousands of people will die, 6,000 people. All of the Smith children got typhus and all of them would suffer from it. Sifronia gets it so bad that she is sick for 90 days. I can’t imagine having a child sick for 90 days.
At a certain point, they thought Sifronia was gone.
They thought she was dead. The neighbors even came in and said, What are you doing? That’s a dead person. Her eyes had rolled back in her head. She had stopped breathing. When Lucy picks her up and implores the Lord to heal their daughter and walks with her and walks with her and walks with her until finally she takes a breath and they witness a miracle here of having Sifronia return.
To life. Now, what happens with Joseph? He gets typhoid fever, too.
Yes. And after a couple of weeks of fever, they think he’s out of the woods. One night, they’re sitting at the dinner table when all of a sudden he felt this sharp pain that made him cry out in his shoulder. They raise his arm and he’s got a terrible fever sore growing under his arm, an abscess. This is gross, but remember this, that mom says they lanced.
It, discharged a court of pus. They think.
Oh, he must be fine now. When Joseph says, Immediately like lightning, he felt the pain in his chin. The infection had gone from this abscess through his blood into the bone. Within days, it’s swollen to such a point that he can’t walk. And that’s when Hyrum, the big brother steps in and Hyrum will spend almost every hour of the day, his mom says, squeezing his leg to relieve the pressure off of that infected bone. One of those great instances of a big brother caring for Joseph, and I love that. It starts to rot the interior of the bone, and the bone, in order to protect itself, grows new bone around it. But it’s swollen and the bone is now looking healthy on the outside, but rotten on the inside and it will continue to swell and just causes terrible pain for Joseph. Another couple of weeks go by. They get the doctor in, he cuts it wide open so that it can release the pressure from the knee to the ankle, all the way open to the bone to try to relieve the pressure. Again, as soon as it starts to heal, the pressure starts to build.
It’s in the bone, it’s not in the flesh. So after a second cut, there’s essentially nothing left for the doctor to do. This is as much knowledge as they had to relieve that pressure.
At this point, the only answer the doctors had for young Joseph was to amputate his leg. This horrified his parents. Lucy, having somehow learned of a new medical technique, requested further help.
So they call in the experts. Because the Lord has put them in this particular place, five miles up the road is Dartmouth Medical School started by Nathan Smith. Nathan Smith is a great surgeon. He’s the man for the job.
Nathan Smith was a prodigy. He started his medical career at a young age. He learned everything he could and became the world’s leading expert. Almost as if the Lord had prepared him for this job, he knew what to do for the young Joseph Smith.
They gather in this little room. Lucy says, I got several sheets and put under his leg to raise it up.
All this is done without any anesthetic.
No anesthetic. They don’t know anything about using ether yet. The only option is Whiskey. Lucy says Joseph wasn’t having any Whiskey. He was offered Brandy, actually, and he said no. He said, Well, at least take some wine. Joseph said no. He said, Well, how can we perform this operation? He said, If my dad will hold me and if my mom will leave the room, then I can do it. I will tough it out. I think that’s insightful. The first seven year old boy to be thinking about his mom and to have that trust in his dad. We don’t know who else had to help hold him. He refused to be tied down and said he would hold still. And then the doctor gets to work. Nathan Smith takes a bone saw and a bone drill. They’re like small hole saws.
Hand cranked. Hand cranked with a key on the top that he uses his wrist to turn it. After they take the first piece of bone off, as he cries out, his mom comes running back in. She can’t stand it. She says she was between one and 200 yards away from the house. We’re about one to 200 yards from the actual house right now. Okay, so Lucy could have been standing right in this very spot when she hears her boy scream in pain. She can’t resist running back in to assist. She runs in to help. He says, Mom, please go out. Please go out. I can only do this if you’re not here. I can’t endure it. As you know, she comes in again another time after the third piece of bone is removed and they have to restrain her. She wants to be with her boy so much. They complete the operation. They clean up all of the blood. They take away all the tools before they welcome Lucy back in. Three years of healing, right? His mom.
Talks about. He’s on crutches when they moved to Palmyra.
Right. Remembering. And he has a slight limb for the rest of his life, doesn’t he? Because of this leg operation. So if Joseph Smith had been living anywhere else in the country, there’s a good chance he would have lost.
His leg. Yes, or his life.
Or his life. Absolutely. It’s that serious.
Very. 6,000 people died from it here. Nathan Smith was cutting edge, pioneering. It was a miracle he was here.
Everything all came together.
Yeah, they were in the right place because God put them here.
Let’s go over to the place. Yeah, let’s go see the spot. After learning about this horrifying yet miraculous experience, I’m hungry to see where it all happened.
Well, this is the place.
This Kentucky Fried Chicken now stands in the place where the home used to stand.
And this is where the leg operation.
Took place. The leg operation took place right here. Wow. There’s one other place I’d like to show you.
Oh, yeah. Okay, let’s go. Let’s go. I don’t think I’ll look at KFC the same again. It starts raining a bit as David takes you back to Joseph’s birthplace. He wants to take me further up the hill, so we find rides that will get us up the muddy and wet roads. On the way to our final location, David took me by several more places. We find an original bridge, perhaps even predating the Smiths’ time. Further along, we find the foundations of Lucy’s father’s home. We keep driving through the forests of wet trees, and the elevation increases until we come to the top of a beautiful and scenic hill. So where are we at right now?
We’re at the top of Patriarch Hill that gives you a really good overlook to see Joseph Smith’s birthplace and the monument.
So this is a panoramic view of the lands Joseph Smith’s ancestors came from where the Max and the Smiths experienced a lot of ups.
And downs. This is a good place to remember all of those moves and all the times that the Lord picked them up and moved them to a new place.
What’s the big picture we put together from all these different places?
So when I see the Smiths and I look at all that the Lord did with them, I see that God moved them from place to place to place, usually through difficult circumstance. So the Lord gets them used to that. He moves them along, He moves them along. In each place, perhaps they learn something new. By the time they get to Palmyra, Joseph senior can do almost any craft that there is. He knows how to work. I really see God’s hand in it. And each place, perhaps, not only teaches them, but the Lord has something for them to help them along the way to. Think if they hadn’t made it to Lebanon to have Joseph have that surgery. The Lord put them certainly in the place where Joseph’s leg could have that surgery, where he could be taken care of. So each of these places had a purpose. Think of how often in Joseph’s life it’s going to need two legs. The Lord put them in the right place at the right time here, and it must have been very frustrating at the time. Looking at it now, it has to be very different. We can see that God had a place for them to be.
I reflect on that and I think about how often it is in our lives that when hard things come, maybe we need to look more often and see that God might be moving us along. It might be something else we need.
To do. Yeah, where we need to be. Well, thanks, Dave. It’s a pleasure. Such a pleasure. Thank you very much. The Lord had inspired the Prophet Joseph Smith’s path. Everything from leading his ancestors to a country built upon freedom of religion, to the minute details of life and health. And just like the young Prophet Joseph Smith, we too can find hope in the idea that no matter our ups and downs, the Lord can be leading us as well. President Russell M. Nelson asked us to always pray for miracle.
Seek and expect miracles in the same way the Lord will bless you with miracles if you believe.
In Him. These stories of God leading Joseph’s young life only testify that we too can experience miracles if we but seek Him every day.