Young Joseph's Call to Be Prophet of the Church

The Story of the Church, by Inez Smith Davis
Chapter 49

Young Joseph

Young Joseph

Even before Joseph's death, Young Joseph [Joseph Smith III], the eldest son of the Prophet, was well known to the Saints in Nauvoo. When his father died he was not yet twelve, an earnest, quiet boy, known and loved by his father's associates. Those who worked on the temple remembered the slender, brown-eyed lad who almost daily rode up the Temple Hill on his father's black horse "Charley" to watch the progress on the building. He was encouraged to come by Alpheus Cutler and Reynolds Cahoon, the temple committee, and the workingmen stopped to explain the progress of the building as he stood by their side and watched them chiseling and carving the stones that were to take their place in the great pilasters of the temple. With a boy's curiosity he watched these great stones being drawn one by one to the top of Temple Hill by teams of oxen and felt himself to be a part of the great movement in which his father played so prominent a part.

No one who lived in Nauvoo and attended meeting in the grove failed to know Young Joseph, for when his father was home, he always insisted upon taking the boy with him into the preacher's stand, although Young Joseph always preferred to sit by his mother in the congregation, as he was privileged to do when his father was away. He loved his father, but shrank from being elevated above his playmates. At the laying of the cornerstone to the temple, he was seated by his father's side on the speaker's stand. One Sunday while he sat there on the stand in the grove beside his father, he heard himself designated publicly as his father's successor.

Many old-time Saints remember this occasion. One of them John H. Carter gave his testimony, under oath, in the Temple Lot Suit.

Joseph Smith came on the stand leading his son, young Joseph, and they sat him down on a bench at the prophet's right hand, and Joseph got up and began to preach, and talk to the people, and the question he said was asked by somebody: "If Joseph Smith should be killed or die, who would be his successor?" And he turned around and said, pointing to his son: "There is the successor," and he went on and said, "My work is nearly done," and that is about all he said in regard to his son. He said in answer to a question that was asked as to who should be his successor in case he should be killed or die, and he pointed to his son, young Joseph, who was sitting there at his side, and said he: "There is your leader."1

Many others testified to this same event.

Young Joseph always spoke of the Nauvoo days before his father's death as "happy days." If there were difficulties, he did not know them. But the days of happiness passed, and the scenes of his life hurried on to that tragedy at Carthage, which left him standing by his father's blood-stained form, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was only twelve and the chief dependence of his mother in an unfriendly world.

The city his father built melted away as magically as it had risen. He watched the people go. Many went westward, including some of his best friends, his cousins; some to the north, some to the south, some to the east, never again to meet as brothers. One-time cherished friends became enemies; unity became chaos.

Emma Smith and her sons stood aloof from it all in the ruins of a deserted city and the silence of a deserted home. Nauvoo, once the most magnificent city in Illinois, was now a dusty village of long rows of empty houses and unoccupied shops and stores; the Mansion House that had once echoed with the cheerful laugh and witty repartee of great visitors to the strange new city was now empty save for the chance traveler or the rough riverman. Young Joseph thought little of the tragedy that had befallen the church, but the tragedy that had befallen him was very real. He wanted to study, to be a great scholar, and he had no earthly heritage except poverty and a name that his father's professed friends had coupled with ignominy and shame. He longed to lift up his head and walk free of this burden of disgrace as other men did. Out of this first great mental conflict of his life came this firm resolution: "If the father shall be judged by the son, then with the assistance of God I will so order my life that it shall be a living testimony, refuting the accusations against him."

Of his religious life he writes:

We were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by Joseph Smith in 1843, confirmed by A. W. Babbitt and another at a meeting of the church held in front of the Temple in Nauvoo. This baptism we believe to have been valid, and a legal act of admission to the church or body of Christ. . . .

In Liberty Jail the promise and blessing of a life of usefulness to the cause of truth was pronounced upon our head by lips tainted by dungeon damps, and by the Spirit confirmed through attesting witnesses.

This blessing has by some been called an ordination, from the usual predilection to confound names and terms. . . .

Subsequent to our baptism in 1843, upon two occasions was the same blessing confirmed by Joseph Smith, once in the council room in the brick store on the banks of the Mississippi, of which we have not a doubt there are witnesses who would confirm the present testimony; once, in the last interview Joseph Smith had with his family before he left Nauvoo to his death. A public attestation of the same blessing was made from the stand in the grove in Nauvoo.

James Whitehead, at that time one of Joseph Smith's scribes, tells of this same event, on the witness stand in the Temple Lot Suit:

I recollect a meeting that was held in the winter of 1843, at Nauvoo, Illinois, prior to Joseph Smith's death, at which the appointment was made by him, Joseph Smith, of his successor. Joseph Smith did the talking. There were present Joseph and Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and some others who also spoke on the subject; there were twenty-five, I suppose, at the meeting. At that meeting, Joseph Smith, the present presiding officer of the complainant church, was selected by his father as his successor. He was ordained and appointed at that meeting. Hyrum Smith, the patriarch, anointed him, and Joseph, his father, blessed him and ordained him and Newell K. Whitney poured the oil on his head, and he was set apart to he his father's successor in office, holding all the powers that his father held. I cannot tell all the persons that were present, there was a good many there. John Taylor and Willard Richards, they were two of the Twelve, Ebenezer Robinson was present and George J. Adams, Alpheus Cutler and Reynolds Cahoon. I cannot tell them all; I was there too.2

Whitehead told this incident many, many times; often he added as he did in a sermon in Lamoni, Iowa, May 22, 1887, "I lift my hands to heaven before God, and declare unto you that this is the truth, for it is a positive fact."3 He continues the narrative and says that Joseph then, turning to this humble secretary, gave him a trust to keep. Of it Whitehead said many years later:

I loved that man, he was a kind benefactor, he was a father to me. I shall never forget the kindness of that man, and I shall never be satisfied until I go where he is again. . . . After Joseph had blessed his son Joseph, he said to me: "I have one request to make of you."

I said "Brother Joseph, what is it?"

"My request is that you stand faithfully by my son Joseph."

I said, "God being my helper, and by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I will stand by your son Joseph as long as he stands faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ."4

Whitehead was true to that trust.

The autobiography of Joseph tells further some of the causes leading to his action in rejecting other factions and accepting the Reorganization. He says:

Joseph Smith III, Age 20

Joseph Smith III, Age 20

It was during this summer [1853] and fall that I had the first serious impression concerning my connection with the work of my father. That spring, if my memory is correct, there was a large emigration to Utah, a part of which was camped at Keokuk, twelve miles below Nauvoo, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. A delegation of them visited Nauvoo, and with one of them, whose name, if I learned it, I do not now remember, I had a long conversation respecting Mormonism. I had talked with many upon the matter, but had never taken the subject into very earnest consideration. This person urged that I was possibly doing a great wrong in allowing the years to pass by unimproved. I stated to him that I was ready to do any work that might fall to my lot or that I might be called to do. I had no fellowship with the leadership in the Salt Lake Church and could not then give my sanction to things there; my prejudices were against them. In the summer and fall, several things occurred that served to bring the question up; my sickness brought me near to death; my coming of age and my choice of a profession were all coincident events; and during my recovery I had opportunity for reflection, as for weeks I could do no work. One day, after my return to health was assured, I had lain down to rest in my room; the window was open to the south and the fresh breeze swept in through the trees and half-closed blinds. I had slept and woke refreshed; my mind recurred to the question of my future life and what its work should be. I had been and was still reading law under the care of a lawyer named William McLennan, and it was partially decided that I should continue that study. While weighing my desires and capabilities for this work, the question came up, Will I ever have anything to do with Mormonism? If so, how and what will it be? I was impressed that there was truth in the work my father had done. I believed the gospel so far as I comprehended it. Was I to have no part in that work as left by him? While engaged in this contemplation and perplexed by these recurring questions, the room suddenly expanded and passed away. I saw stretched out before me towns, cities, busy marts, courthouses, courts, and assemblies of men, all busy and all marked by those characteristics that are found in the world, where men win place and renown. This stayed before my vision till I had noted clearly that choice of preferment here was offered to him who would enter in, but who did so must go into the busy whirl and be submerged by its din, bustle, and confusion. In the subtle transition of a dream I was gazing over, a wide expanse of country in a prairie land; no mountains were to be seen, but far as the eye could reach, hill and dale, hamlet and village, farm and farmhouse, pleasant cot and homelike place, everywhere betokening thrift, industry, and the pursuits of a happy peace were open to the view. I remarked to him standing by me, but whose presence I had not before noticed "This must be the country of a happy people." To this he replied, "Which would you prefer, life, success, and renown among the busy scenes that you first saw, or a place among these people, without honors or renown. Think of it well, for the choice will be offered to you sooner or later, and you must be prepared to decide. Your decision once made you cannot recall it, and must abide the result."

No time was given me for a reply, for as suddenly as it had come, so suddenly was it gone, and I found myself sitting upright on the side of the bed where I had been lying, the rays of the declining sun shining athwart the western hills and over the shimmering river, making the afternoon all glorious with their splendor, shone into my room instinct with life and motion, filling me with gladness that I should live. From that hour, at leisure, at work or play, I kept before me what had been presented, and was at length prepared to answer when the opportunity for the choice should be given.5

In after years, when the church had its headquarters in Lamoni, Iowa, Joseph Smith looked out of the windows of the editorial rooms in the old Herald Office building, and there saw the very prairie scene he had looked upon in this vision.

Continuing with his own statement, Joseph says:

In the fall of this year [1856] three events transpired that had much to do with deciding my course religiously and aiding me to answer the question, what part in my father's work, if any, I was to take. For a number of years I had been more or less intimate with the family of Christopher E. Yates, a friend to the Saints, who at the time of the disturbances in Hancock County, for his outspoken denunciation of mob violence and mob law, had suffered the loss of a fine barn, a lot of grain, hay, and a number of horses by fire, set by incendiaries out of revenge as it is supposed, and who had removed with other citizens into Nauvoo and bought property there. With one of his sons, Putnam, circumstances had made me well acquainted. He had crossed the plains a number of times, had been in Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah, and in California. He and I had frequently discussed Mormonism, that is, some parts of it, and he had persistently insisted that I could do a great and an excellent work by going to Utah, and, as he put it, "taking the lead away from Brigham, breaking up that system of things out there," or "fall in with the style of things there, become a leader, get rich, marry three or four wives and enjoy myself." Though not a religious man himself, he thought it might be a duty that I owed the people of Utah. He further thought that from his experience in Utah, and the expressions he had heard among the people there, I would be received with open arms and could succeed.

To this I replied as best I could, until the question: Why not go to Utah? There are the men who were with my father, or a great many of them. There, a large part of the family; there, also, seem to be the only ones making profession of belief in Mormonism who appear to be doing anything. Does not duty demand that I go there and clear my name and honor of the charge of ingratitude to my father's character? Is not polygamy, against which you object, a correct tenet? Is not your objection one of prejudice only? These and a thousand others of similar import were suggested, and added their weight to the difficulty of the situation. In the height of it, the words suggested to one who had gone before me came to me with force: "If any lack wisdom, let him ask of God." Why not I? Was I not in a position to need wisdom? And was I not destitute of sufficient to enable me to properly decide? I had for three or four years been investigating spiritual phenomena; had read some of the productions of Andrew J. Davis; had also read a little of Doctor Emanuel Swedenborg's philosophy; but I found no good in spiritualism; the phenomena were physical and gross; no response from the departed spirits of any of the family, though severely appealed to in turn, ever came; and the manifestations, though strange and material, were altogether inadequate for the deductions spiritualists drew from them. I did not give credence to the philosophy. My human intelligence was at fault, I could not decide. I believed that he who had enabled my father to decide which of all should receive his attention, could, if he would, enable me to decide whether I should, or should not, have anything to do with Momonism, and if so, what. I proceeded upon this conclusion.

A year or two before this we had raised an excellent crop of wheat upon a piece of land lying in the south of our meadow, and this man Yates had assisted in doing some of the work. While engaged in it we had some conversation about Utah. After this, I did not see him for some months. One day, while pondering these questions (and here, unlike some, I cannot certainly state whether morn or even, only that the sun was shining), I suddenly found myself sowing this piece of land to wheat. My brother and this Mr. Yates I saw harrowing the wheat after my sowing. In passing over the land I met Mr. Yates as he drove to and fro, and our conversation was upon this Utah subject; and the same arguments and statements were repeated by him. To these I was urging again my reluctance to move, and the question was again presented, Why not go to Utah? I paused, rested the. bag of grain that I was carrying across my shoulder, upon my knee, and turned to answer him. I heard a slight noise like the rush of the breeze that arrested my speech and my attention. I turned my gaze slightly upward and saw descending towards me a sort of cloud, funnel shaped, with the wide part upward. It was luminous, and of such color and brightness that it was clearly seen, though the sun shone in its summer strength. It descended rapidly, and settling upon and over me, enveloped me completely, so that I stood within its radiance.

As the cloud rested upon the ground at my feet, the words, "Because the light in which you stand is greater than theirs," sounded in my ears clearly and distinctly. Slowly the cloud passed away and the vision closed. A few days after this occurred, I met this man Putnam Yates, and had a conversation with him in which he again urged upon me the idea of going to Utah; and my answer was in exact accordance with what I had seen. The other question, "Is polygamy of God?" was as distinctly and definitely answered to me, as was the one referred to above; and the answer was, "No," and I was directed that I was to have nothing to do with it, but was to oppose it.6

Concerning his decision to accept the call to the Presidency, he writes as follows:

During the year 1859 the question of my connection with my father's work was finally determined. I became satisfied that it was my duty. The queries heretofore referred to were one by one being settled; until the final one, where and with whom should my life labor lie? was the only one left. This was determined by a similar manifestation to others that I had received to this effect: "The Saints reorganizing at Zarahemla and other places, is the only organized portion of the church accepted by me. I have given them my Spirit, and will continue to do so while they remain humble and faithful."

This was in the fall of 1859, and in the winter I resolved to put myself in communication with the brethren of the Reorganized Church.7

In concluding this chapter with these excerpts from the autobiography of Young Joseph, it is perhaps well to recount a further statement of his regarding his position as President of the church. He says:

We have always felt reluctant to speak in attestation of the position as President of the Church, for three reasons:

1st. Every aspirant for that position since the crime that left the church a prey to aspirants, has been loud in his own defense, and has each, in turn, run into vice and folly, thereby causing the cause to be evilly spoken of.

2nd. Words are but cheap, protestations are but the breath of one's lips, and wisdom is never very open-mouthed, and the unsupported testimony of any man must fall.

3rd. If the Lord has promised, and the work is his, the Spirit which bore testimony to it at the beginning will continue its ministrations.8

1 Plaintiff's Abstract in Temple Lot Suit, pages 180, 181; Succession in Church Presidency, by Heman C. Smith, page 48.

2 Plaintiff's Abstract of Evidence in Temple Lot Suit, page 28; Succession in Church Presidency, by Heman C. Smith, page 47.

3 Sermon of James Whitehead in Lamoni, May 22, 1887. Reported by Daniel J. Lambert, published in Autumn Leaves, Volume 1, page 202.

4 Ibid., pages 203, 204.

5 Tullidge, Life of Joseph the Prophet, pages 756–758; Church History, Volume 3, pages 254, 255.

6 Church History, Volume 3, pages 256–259; Tullidge, pages 760-763.

7 Church History, Volume 3, page 263; Tullidge, page 772.

8 The True Latter Day Saints' Herald, Volume 14, number 7, page 105.