It may come as a surprise even to those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as the Mormon Church) that until the last few decades, very few of Joseph and Emma Smith’s direct descendants were members of the now-worldwide church which Joseph was instrumental in founding. In the following account, one of their great-great granddaughters shares her experience of learning of the restored gospel and gaining her own testimony that the Book of Mormon is true and that her ancestor Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God to perform a great work on the earth in the latter days.
On 17 March 2011, I [Gracia Normandeau Jones] 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 neighbourhood hostile toward anyone who professed belief in it, the Smith children missed being raised in the LDS faith.
In 1860, Joseph Smith III was recruited by a group calling themeselves the Reorganization. This group developed into The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS). When Joseph Smith III made the decision to join this group, his family was confused about what actions they should take. Some joined, some did not. Family members lived in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois until the mid-1920s, when conflicts about both leadership of the RLDS Church and money scattered them all across the country. In 1932, after having been forced from several farms during the Great Depression, Gracia’s grandparents moved to Montana. Here Gracia’s mother, Lorena, married and raised her own children.
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. . .
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.
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!”
Gracia got permission from her parents to continuing listening to the missionaries, but they were both opposed to her getting baptized. Her mother actually did not know hardly anything about the history of the Church and Joseph Smith, but she remembered how upset her mother would get every time the subject was brought up, so she had serious reservations about Gracia joining the church. Gracia’s father simply felt she was too young to make such an important decision. As she waited for her eighteenth birthday, Gracia continued studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon and her testimony grew. Shortly after her birthday in 1956, she was baptized 65 miles from her branch. No one she knew was able to attend her baptism, and no one at the baptism knew of her heritage. Gracia was only the third descendant of Joseph and Emma to be baptized, and she was the first to remain active and to receive her temple ordinances. Largely through her example and influence, now more than one hundred of Joseph and Emma’s descendants have been baptized, including Gracia’s mother, Lorena, who was baptized in 1979 and was the first of Joseph’s descendants to serve a full-time mission for the Mormon Church.
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.