A Sketch of Joseph Smith by Those Who Knew Him

by Doris White

A recent publication by Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith, is a wonderful collection of memories and impressions of the remarkable man Joseph Smith was. Some of the excerpts in this article are from McConkie’s book, and they will help you to come to know Joseph Smith the man. Reading people’s personal accounts can give you a better understanding of how Joseph interacted with people each day, who he really was. He was fun, loyal, compassionate, and humble. He was a man who had infinite faith in God. When he prayed to God, he knew he would get an answer.

A portrait painting of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet Joseph had keen insight into many things, including some business tactics. Many people sought his counsel in this area, and he gave it when asked. Looking at his life, it seems to the observer that every time Joseph began to be successful, things fell apart. This was frequently due to interfering enemies who could simply not leave Joseph alone.

Joseph was attacked physically on many occasions. He was often hounded by false charges. He was almost continually on the edge of financial distress. In the midst of trying to fulfill the staggering responsibilities of his sacred calling, he had to labor as a farmer or merchant to provide a living for his family. He did this without the remarkable spiritual gifts that sustained him in his prophetic calling. The Lord had advised him that “in temporal labors thou shalt not have strength, for this is not thy calling” (D&C 24:9). (Dallin Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign, April 1996.)

Joseph’s crops did well when he was able to plant. He was a very hard worker and spent many hours helping others when they stood in need. He was also a very organized man. In addition to all these qualities, he was very generous. Most importantly, he was a prophet of God and held authority from God. This gave him the power to heal many who were sick. Even more important, it gave him the authority to organize and lead God’s church. Because Joseph was called of God and did his best to fulfill God’s work for him, he was blessed and became an even better person, as each of us can when we follow God’s commandments.

Some critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the oft-nicknamed “Mormon Church” is officially called) say that people were drawn to Joseph because he was a charismatic leader and they blindly followed him. The following descriptions put that myth to rest. Having the spirit of Christ with you as much as Joseph Smith did means that you radiate joy and light, and people are drawn to that because they long for it in their own lives. Joseph Smith was a true follower of Christ, and his mission was to bring the joy of the Light of Christ into the lives of others who would accept it.

Enjoy reading these insights into the life of Joseph Smith from those who knew him.

William Taylor Spends Time with Joseph Smith

Late in the night the Prophet had gone to my brother John’s house in Nauvoo and said to him: “I want you to go with me to your father’s.” My brother said: “But I can’t go, Brother Joseph; I am sick in bed!” The Prophet replied: “I’ll come in and help you dress, and you’ll find no inconvenience from going out.”

So Brother John got up, dressed and started out with him, and by the time they reached our home, none of us could tell that he had been the least sick. The four stayed at our house a few days and then the Prophet sent the other three back to Nauvoo to see if anything was going wrong at that place. In a few days they returned. During their absence the Prophet and I spent most of our time during the day in the woods, near our house on the Henderson bottom, walking around, shooting squirrels sometimes, or doing anything we could to amuse ourselves. I was the Prophet’s only companion in these tramps through the woods, and I have often thought it strange, that though there were many people in that part of the country we never met anyone when we were out.

I do not remember exactly how long the Prophet remained at our home, but it seems to me it was about two weeks, but in this short period, owing to the nature of the circumstances surrounding us, I had more real close association with him than I would have had in a lifetime under different conditions. It is impossible for me to express my feelings in regard to this period of my life.

I have never known the same joy and satisfaction in the companionship of any other person, man or woman, that I felt with him, the man who had conversed with the Almighty. He was always the most companionable and lovable of men—cheerful and jovial! Sometimes on our return home in the evening after we had been tramping around in the woods, he would call out: “Here, mother, come David and Jonathan.”

Much has been said of his geniality and personal magnetism. I was a witness of this—people, old or young, loved him and trusted him instinctively. I said to him once: “Brother Joseph, don’t you get frightened when all those hounding wolves are after you?”

And he answered: “No, I am not afraid; the Lord said he would protect me, and I have full confidence in His word.” I knew the danger, and whatever happened to him would happen to me, but I felt no more fear than I now feel. There was something superior to thoughts of personal safety. Life or death was a matter of indifference to me while I was the companion of the Lord’s anointed!

He said to me often: “I’ll never forsake you, William,” and I knew he wouldn’t.

(William Taylor, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal 17, no. 12 [December 1906]: 547–48.)

Jesse Crosby Notes Many of Joseph Smith’s Characteristics

Brother Jesse W. Crosby, a prominent man in early Dixie and an early preacher of the Gospel lived a close neighbor to the Prophet [Joseph Smith] in Nauvoo. Being a very observing man he learned much of that great man’s home life, and he used to tell us many interesting things about it.

He said the Prophet had great ability as a financier, and that had his enemies left him he would have become one of the wealthiest men in America. Everything his hand touched seemed to prosper. His fields were always in good condition and yielded well.

When people came to see him, and he had many visitors, their teams were fed the best of hay and his barn was full. No other orchard had as fine fruit as his did. If an inferior cow was by any means shoved on to him it would be but a short time before she became a first-class milker. Many men sought his advice when in financial difficulty, and none failed to profit by it if they followed the counsel he gave.

A period of great prosperity for him, Brother Crosby said, would seem to induce a raid upon him. One trial after another would be launched until he was left penniless and perhaps in debt. On one of these occasions when the Prophet had been absent from home for some time, Brother Crosby went to his home to see if he might render some assistance.

When he made the purpose of his visit known, the [Prophet’s] wife burst into tears and said that if the persecution would cease they could live as well as any other family in the land. They could even have the luxuries of life. Bro. Crosby related the following items of interest concerning the Prophet.

He was strong and active, and could build more rods of good fence in one day than most men could do in two, and he always left his fence clear of everything that might gather fire, such as underbrush, loose limbs, and tall strong weeds.

He was orderly. His wood yard was an example of order. Logs were neatly piled and all trash cleared away. If he did not finish the log on which he was chopping the remnant was laid back on the pile and not left on the ground for a stumbling block. The chips he made he picked up himself into a basket and put them in a wooden box which stood in the wood yard to carry them into the house to be burned.

Bro. Crosby confessed this: During a period of financial depression for the prophet, the ax was stolen from his wood yard and Brother Crosby contributed to loan him the ax belonging to himself because of the unfailing habit of the Prophet to always sharpen the ax he had been using before it left his hand. People in that section burned hard wood and to keep the ax in good shape required much time and energy. Some of the home habits of this best friend, however, such as building kitchen fires, carrying out ashes, carrying in wood and water, assisting in the care of the children, etc. were not in accord with Brother Crosby’s idea of a great man’s duty.

(“LaFayette C. Lee, Notebook,” LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.)

What a wonderful personal character sketch of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is truly the day-to-day activities and actions of a man that show his true character. The commentary regarding how everything Joseph touched seemed to prosper reminds me of Jacob in the Old Testament, when he was working for Laban and was able to build up quite a stock of goods for himself because the Lord blessed him (Genesis 30).

Joseph Smith was a hard and honest worker. He wanted to help those around him, but his enemies refused to leave him alone. Yet, each time Joseph’s enemies thought they had ruined him, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes and prospered again. Even when Joseph willingly went to Carthage and knew it was to his death, he was comforted by the knowledge that he had fulfilled God’s work for him on the earth. How many of us, when we feel our mortality, can say with an honest heart that we know we have done our best to keep God’s commandments and to fulfill His wishes for us here?

Oliver Cowdery Describes Joseph Smith in Prayer

god-is-accessibleThis third-person account from Oliver Cowdery of Joseph Smith’s experience when he prayed in his home and received a vision of the angel Moroni is a very special one. It had been three years since Joseph’s vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Joseph felt he needed more guidance, and thus prayed for more. While Joseph shares a record of this experience in his own words in Joseph Smith—History 1:29–47, the emotions he obviously conveyed to Oliver are depicted more vividly in this account, as published in Messenger and Advocate, Volume 1, No. 5, (February 1835), 79.

On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.

At length the family retired and he, as usual, bent his way, though in silence, where others might have rested their weary frames ‘locked fast in sleep’s embrace,’ but repose had fled and accustomed slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him—he continued still to pray—his heart though once hard and obdurate, was softened, and that mind which had often flitted, like the “wild bird of passage,” had settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven from its purpose.

In this situation hours passed unnumbered—how many or how few I know not, neither is he able to inform me, but supposes it must have been eleven or twelve, and perhaps later as the noise and bustle of the family, in retiring, had long since ceased.

While continuing in prayer for a manifestation in some way that his sins were forgiven, endeavouring to exercise faith in the scriptures, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a purer and far more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room. Indeed to use his own description, the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming and unquenchable fire. This sudden appearance of a light so bright, as most naturally be expected, occasioned a shock or sensation, visible to the extremities of the body. It was, however, followed with a calmness and serenity of mind, and an overwhelming rapture of joy that surpassed understanding, and in a moment a personage stood before him.

Now in Joseph’s words, from his own account:

Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.

He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people (JosephSmith—History 1:32–33).

Mary Adams Recalls When Joseph Was True to the Law but Still Generous

While he [Joseph Smith] was acting as mayor of the city, a colored man called Anthony was arrested for selling liquor on Sunday, contrary to law. He pleaded that the reason he had done so was that he might raise the money to purchase the freedom of a dear child held as a slave in a southern state. He had been able to purchase the liberty of himself and wife and now wished to bring his little child to their new home. Joseph said, “I am sorry, Anthony, but the law must be observed, and we will have to impose a fine.”

The next day Brother Joseph presented Anthony with a fine horse, directing him to sell it, and use the money obtained for the purchase of the child.

Sister Adams says how well she remembers the feeling of sorrow that pervaded the city, when the two brothers lying dead in the Mansion House. She with the rest of the children, were not permitted to go in the streets owing to the crowd of people who thronged the city, coming and going by steamboat and carriages, and all with grieving hearts for the departed loved ones.

Mary Frost Adams, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal 17, no. 12 (December 1906): 538.

Mary Adams was touched by this kindness from Joseph Smith. I am impressed by Joseph’s ability to handle the situation so well. How his heart must have broken at the thought of a man who had escaped the wicked bonds of slavery doing all in his power to bring his family back together. Yet, Joseph’s position as mayor required him to exercise the law. Since Anthony had broken the law, Joseph could not ignore the fact, even though his motive was noble. While making sure Anthony answered for the law he had broken, Joseph reached out in love and mercy to offer this man the chance to reunite his family in freedom.

This story gains impact when one learns how often Joseph was wrongfully attacked using the judicial system. Almost countless times, he was sued many times for fraud because other people were angry when the lost their money and wanted to hold Joseph accountable. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared the following about his own research into this matter:

The accessibility of Illinois court records led to another untouched area of research on Joseph Smith—his financial activities. Joseph I. Bentley, then a law student at Chicago, and I discovered numerous records showing the business activities of Joseph Smith. As we explained in our article, this was a period following a nationwide financial panic and depression. Economic conditions in frontier states like Illinois were ruinous. The biographers of an Illinois contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, have described his financial embarrassments during this decade, when business was precarious, many obligations were in default, and lawsuits were common. The enemies of Joseph charged him with fraud in various property conveyances, mostly in behalf of the Church. A succession of court proceedings that extended for nearly a decade examined these claims in meticulous detail. Finally, in 1852, long after the Saints’ exodus from Illinois (so there was no conceivable political or other cause for anyone to favor the Prophet), a federal judge concluded this litigation with a decree that found no fraud or other moral impropriety by the Prophet. (See Dallin H. Oaks and Joseph I. Bentley, “Joseph Smith and Legal Process: In the Wake of the Steamboat Nauvoo,” BYU Law Review [1976]: 735.) Independent of that decree, as one who has examined the hundreds of pages of allegations and evidence in these proceedings, I testify to the Prophet’s innocence of the charges against him.

As one familiar with early Illinois property law and as a lawyer enjoying the benefit of over 100 years of hindsight, I can readily see where Joseph and his fellow Church leaders and members were seriously disadvantaged by poor legal advice in some of the controversies just described. Bad legal advice may have been one of the causes for Brigham Young’s well-publicized negative opinions of lawyers. I have often chuckled at his 1846 declaration that he “would rather have a six-shooter than all the lawyers in Illinois” (History of the Church, 7:386). (“Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign, April 1996.)

Benjamin Brown Is Miraculously Healed by Joseph Smith

faith_twigMy family, with myself, was also taken sick, and I laid so for two or three weeks. I was so far gone that I was quite senseless, and all thought I was dying. Doubtless I should have died, but one day Joseph Smith was passing by my door, for I had managed to procure a house, and was called in, and, as I was afterwards informed, laid his hands upon me, and commanded me to rise and walk in the name of the Lord.

The first thing I knew was that I found myself walking on the floor, perfectly well, and within ten minutes afterwards I was out of the house visiting my daughter, whom I had not seen for nearly a month. I felt so full of joy and happiness, that I was greatly surprised that everyone else was not as full of praise as myself. This was the second time that I had been healed instantly by the power of God, through his servants.

This man, Joseph Smith, was the one that the world says was an impostor, and a false prophet, and either deny that he ever performed any miracle, or, if any are too well attested to be denied, attribute them to the power of the imagination over the body. Was it the power of imagination over the body, that cured me, when I did not even hear Joseph’s voice, or know that any operation on my behalf was going on, until I found myself well? The honest in heart will judge righteously.

(Benjamin Brown, Testimonies for the Truth: A Record of Manifestations of the Power of God, Miraculous and Providential, Witnessed in the Travels and Experience of Benjamin Brown, High Priest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pastor of the London, Reading, Kent, and Essex Conferences [Liverpool: S.W. Richards, 1853], 12.)

Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God in our day to restore ancient truths and ordinances which had been lost from the earth. Healing blessings through the power of the priesthood was one such restored gift of the Spirit, and Joseph Smith is not the only person to have administered to the sick, as Benjamin himself implies when referencing another time he had been healed by the power of the priesthood.

Seeing a little bit into the daily life of Joseph Smith helps us to see the many great characteristics he had. He was not perfect, but the pattern of trying, repentance, and forgiveness in his life is one the Savior would wish us to follow. By applying the cleansing and healing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in our own lives, we can become more like Him, just as Joseph Smith exemplified.

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