Alvin Smith was the second son born to Joseph Smith, Sr. and his wife, Lucy Mack Smith. Their first child died prematurely, leaving Alvin in the position of oldest child. The family had not lived near schools, so when they moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, they arranged for Alvin to attend a school in Hanover. The younger children went to school closer to home.
Alvin was remembered as one who cared deeply for those who were suffering. When he saw a fight and realized one man was in danger of having his eye gauged out, he intervened by throwing the attacker over the ring. However, neighbors recalled that he was controlled and it took a great deal to anger him.
The family faced a great deal of hardship in New Hampshire, including Joseph Smith’s bout with typhoid. As the family faced financial difficulties, Alvin’s father went ahead of the family to the farmlands in western New York. Alvin, probably eighteen at the time, found his father’s departure difficult. He and Hyrum, sixteen at the time, had the responsibility of overseeing the journey to join their father. It was a very challenging journey, with the driver they’d hired forcing young Joseph Smith to walk as much as forty miles a day, despite the pain he was experiencing from his leg operations. Hyrum and Alvin tried to get the driver under control but were hit with the butt of a whip when they did so.
Alvin Smith’s Family Leadership
Alvin Smith and Hyrum worked for a year to help earn enough to pay off the purchase agreement on the new farm. When this was done, they were permitted to build a cabin and start clearing the land, a project that required much from Alvin. Once they had cleared thirty acres, the next payment was nearly due and they did not have the money for it. Alvin volunteered to leave home to find work. He did so and earned all but the last payment through backbreaking work.
He then took charge of building a new frame house on the property. He, now twenty-four, was excited when the house was completed in November, stating that his parents would have a comfortable place to relax and would not have to work so hard anymore.
In September, 1823, Alvin’s younger brother Joseph Smith received a visit from an angel named Moroni. Joseph had previously received a vision, at age 14, in which he saw God and Jesus Christ. At that time, Joseph had asked which church to join and was told not to join any of them because none of them had the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joseph had begun to be concerned about not joining a church and Moroni appeared to him to begin to prepare him to become the first prophet of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. Moroni taught Joseph throughout the night, leaving him exhausted in the morning.
Alvin Smith’s Role in Church History
While working in the field the day after Joseph’s vision of Moroni, Alvin, always alert to the feelings of others, noticed Joseph seemed very tired. His father sent Joseph back home. On the way home, Moroni appeared again and taught Joseph. He also instructed Joseph to tell his father about these appearances. Joseph asked Alvin to get their father, who told Joseph to do as the angel instructed. When Joseph had rested, he went to the Hill Cumorah, as instructed by Moroni. There Joseph was permitted to see, but not to retrieve, plates that contained what would come to be known as the Book of Mormon, an ancient record of Christ’s dealings with some of the early inhabitants of the Americas.
It was again Alvin who saw that Joseph was too tired to talk that night and suggested that the family increase their work the next day so they could stop an hour early to learn about Joseph’s experiences. When Joseph taught the family what he had learned, it was Alvin who immediately believed him. Joseph’s mother reported that Alvin was always the most faithful in believing Joseph’s words.
Just two months later, Alvin Smith experienced intense stomach pains and asked for a doctor. It is likely he had appendicitis, which doctors did not yet know how to treat. Their regular doctor was not available and the person who treated Alvin overdosed him on Calomel. His mother reported that as Alvin lay dying, he asked his brother Hyrum to finish building the house and encouraged Joseph to continue in the work God had for him.
Alvin’s tombstone says he died on Nov. 19, 1823, at the age of 25. The minister who preached at the funeral suggested that although Alvin had loved God deeply and had been extremely kind, good, and moral, he could not go to Heaven because he was unbaptized and did not belong to any church. Alvin’s father felt deeply that this was false doctrine, but the matter weighed heavily on the grieving family for the next thirteen years. Another child, Don Carlos, also died.
Vision involving Alvin Smith
Thirteen years later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the “Mormon Church”) now established, Alvin’s father was given a priesthood blessing through the laying on of hands by the First Presidency of the Church. He then gave his son Joseph a blessing. Following this blessing, Joseph Smith saw a vision of the future in which his parents, who were still alive at the time of the blessing, were in Heaven with Alvin. He was puzzled that Alvin could receive the highest level of exaltation without having been baptized, but in the vision, he was assured that those who died faithful would be rewarded with exaltation. It had certainly not been Alvin’s fault he died before baptism through the proper authority had been restored and God does not punish us for situations beyond our control.
Two months later, the authority to perform works for the dead was restored. These were to be vicarious baptisms for those who died without having been baptized by the proper authority. The baptisms did not automatically make a person a member of the Church, because baptism must be a voluntary action. If a person, having learned of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Heaven, accepted the baptism, it was valid, but if he rejected it, the vicarious baptism had no authority at all and it was as if it did not happen.
Alvin, though dead before the Church was restored, was a significant person in its history. Revelation comes most often through questions asked by prophets, and his death had sparked one of the most important questions ever asked: What will God do with those who die without the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and to accept His gospel?
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, August 1987
Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants by Lynn F. Price, Cedar Fort, 2007.
About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.