by Terrie Lynn Bittner
The descendants of Joseph Smith are gradually returning to their roots. Joseph Smith was the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes nicknamed Mormons.
Joseph’s descendants spent many generations away from the Church. The children of some of his brothers’ families were members—largely those of brother Hyrum—but most had gone in other directions.
The division of the family began early on. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by mobs in 1844. This led to a division in the Church over who should become the next prophet. In the end, a miracle led to the people recognizing Brigham Young as the new prophet, but not everyone was happy with that. Several splinter groups formed. The mainstream group of Mormons fled Illinois and headed for what later became Utah, following Brigham Young. Hyrum’s widow took his children and joined the Saints in the West; this group is the one whose descendants are largely in the Church today.
Joseph Smith’s Descendants Leave Mormonism
Joseph’s widow, Emma, had some disagreements with Brigham Young, possibly fueled by the grieving process and the complex need to separate family and church possessions. When the Saints moved on to Utah, Emma chose to remain behind. Joseph’s mother, who was widowed, also stayed, too old and frail to make the difficult journey, and Emma helped to care for her.
One group of dissidents felt that the Church leadership should be handed down from father to son. They wanted to hold the leadership for Joseph Smith’s oldest surviving son until he was old enough to take over. He was initially not interested, but eventually agreed to accept the position. This church became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and still operates today, although under a new name and a growing process of distancing itself from its roots.
Joseph’s brother William had been excommunicated and his brother Samuel died just over a month after Joseph and Hyrum died. Samuel had suffered injuries trying to warn his brothers of danger. His widow went west, but continued on to California. Joseph’s other brothers were all dead and the sisters stayed in Illinois.
The family was now scattered around the country and in days of difficult communication, those who did not go to Utah largely did not stay members of the Church or did not raise their families to stay. After a few generations, many had forgotten their roots.
Joseph Smith’s Descendants Becoming Mormon
Then things began to change. Kenny Duke is a descendant of Joseph Smith’s sister Catherine. He learned about his heritage from an uncle who was a leader in the Reorganized Church. Kim Smith learned about Joseph Smith, her direct ancestor, from her grandmother, who had pictures of Joseph and Emma in her home. Kim felt drawn to them and learned that there was a great deal of animosity in the family coming from this lineage. She was taught to hate Brigham Young and was even taught that Brigham had planned Joseph’s murder, but she began to research the subject for herself. The result of this research was that she found the truth, became converted, and became a Mormon.
Michael Kennedy was given a school assignment to write about an ancestor. His father showed him a box of things related to Joseph Smith. It was the first Michael had heard of his third-great grandfather. As he was looking through the box, two men knocked on his door. He answered and learned they were from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They asked to speak to his father. While they waited for his father, the missionaries noticed the items spread out and asked about them. He explained they were related to his ancestor, Joseph Smith, who had founded the Mormon Church. He did not know the church the missionaries belonged to was sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church, but the missionaries became quite excited and obtained permission to return with discussions that would help Michael learn about the church his ancestor had led.
The miracle of two missionaries showing up just as he was examining these items was even greater because the missionaries were there only as part of a test designed to decide which areas to open to missionary work. The test determined that his area was not productive enough, since only two families agreed to learn about the church, his and one other. A girl in the other home, Darcy Dodge, was so enthusiastic she wanted to be baptized the day she met the missionaries, although they insisted she finish the lessons.
However, Michael had not had a good relationship with organized religion and quickly lost interest. The missionaries learned that Darcy knew him and asked her to help interest Michael. She got his mother to invite him to stay in the discussions, which he did. However, he told the missionaries he would decide when he was eighteen. He got baptized and then left for college, thinking he was done with the Mormons.
At the very moment his father called to tell his aunt, who had been the person behind collecting the artifacts, about the baptism, a man sent by the prophet to find all of Joseph Smith’s descendants was sitting in her house. He reported the baptism to the prophet, who was then Harold B. Lee. President Lee asked to meet with Michael. In time, he became the first descendant of Joseph Smith to receive the Melchizedek priesthood, fulfilling a prophecy made that said that priesthood would be restored before the family would be gathered together again.
Read Michael Kennedy’s telling of his conversion.
Gradually, other descendants of Joseph began to find their way back to their family’s religion. These descendants also made peace with Brigham Young’s descendants. The Smith descendants now hold regular reunions. Initially, there was an agreement to avoid the topic of religion at these reunions, since most were not Mormons, but today, so many have been baptized that a church service is part of the reunion.
The annual reunions and the gradual return of descendants to the Church are God’s answer to a prayer uttered by Joseph Smith long ago:
O God, let the residue of my father’s house…ever come up in remembrance before thee and stand virtuous and pure in thy presence, that thou mayest save them from the hand of the oppressor, and establish their feet upon the rock of ages, that they may have place in thy house and be saved in thy kingdom, even where God, and Christ is, and let all these things be as I have said, for Christ’s sake. Amen (Joseph Smith, Jr., Documentary History of the Church 1:466–467).
The Michael Kennedy Conversion Story
Scot and Maurine Proctor, Why Prophets Have Prayed for Joseph Smith’s Posterity, August 9, 2013
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.