Relief Society Lesson 7: Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Witnesses for Christ
I still remember on my mission, one particular day when one particular investigator told my companion and me that he admired many things about our church, and had many LDS friends whose families and lives he respected, but that there was one thing he could not get over: we worshipped Joseph Smith. We tried to explain the distinction, that we worship God and Jesus Christ, but are grateful for Joseph Smith because he helped us know Them more. We also brought in ancient prophets who helped us do the same.
And then my companion said a prayer. She began it, “Dear Heavenly Father,” and closed it, “In the name of Joseph Smith. Amen.” I was mortified, and thought this guy would never believe the story we just told, or that 99.99999999999% of Mormon prayers end, “In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” My companion told me later that she was nervous. I told her that it was fine. And it was, mostly, but the issue that the man raised is an important one, because it is a real concern for many people.
I thought of it again when I first read the 7th chapter in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual: “Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Witnesses for Christ.” And I thought of some questions. Let us keep them in mind as we consider this lesson.
- Why do we sometimes focus so much on Joseph Smith?
- What can we learn from his life, that can help us in our own?
- What can we learn from Hyrum’s life? (He is included in this lesson too.)
- What can we learn from their relationship.
- What can we learn from their willingness to be martyrs for Christ’s sake?
Joseph Fielding Smith’s personal background
Joseph Fielding Smith had a rich heritage. He was the grandson of Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith, and the great-nephew of Joseph Smith. Many women present during the lesson may know this, but others may not. I think it is significant, because it gives us a clue as to why there is a shared focus on Joseph and Hyrum. Most other lessons of this nature exclusively emphasize Joseph.
Something else I also think is significant is that Joseph Fielding Smith never knew either of his Smith grandparents. Hyrum was martyred well before he was born, and ‘Mary Fielding also died young.’ Of the latter, JFS said,
I never knew my Grandmother Smith. I have always regretted that, because she was one of the most noble women who ever lived, but I did know her good sister, my Aunt Mercy Thompson, and as a boy I used to go and visit her in her home and sit at her knee, where she told me stories about the Prophet Joseph Smith, and, oh, how grateful I am for that experience.
Do I love the Prophet Joseph Smith? Yes, I do, as my father did before me. I love him because he was the servant of God and because of the restoration of the gospel and because of the benefits and blessings that have come to me and mine, and to you and yours, through the blessings that were bestowed upon this man and those who were associated with him.
While President Smith was thankful for his father’s testimony, he also gained his own. It came from a broader source, that we can all rely on: “I have always been very grateful for the testimony coming to me through the Spirit of the Lord that Joseph Smith, the Prophet of God, was called to stand at the head of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times.” This may be why he testified on another occasion, that “Every soul upon the face of the earth who has a desire to know it has the privilege.” For “every soul that will humble himself [or herself], and in the depths of humility and faith, with a contrite spirit, go before the Lord, will receive that knowledge just as surely as he lives.”
Why do we sometimes focus so much on Joseph Smith?
The short answer can be found in what Joseph Fielding Smith called the “inspired words from the Doctrine and Covenants.” “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men [and women] in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” (D&C 135:3.)
A slightly longer answer can be found in an address given at “The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress” by my friend and former professor, David Paulsen. He suggested that Joseph Smith challenged the theological world in three important ways.
1) God has resumed direct revelation to mankind in our day.
2) God has restored divine authority to man to speak and act in His name.
3) The canon of scripture is open and reveals new insights into the nature of Deity.
What can we learn from his life, that can help us in our own?
Among other things, we can learn that God talks to those who others consider least, like children and the poorly educated. We can learn the importance of pondering sacred writ, and of praying out loud in quiet spaces. We can learn that as a friend of mine says, “All groves are sacred.” We can learn with Joseph what he learned there, about God and about ourselves. We can learn that our darkest hours are but short moments. We can learn the value of friendship. We can learn the value of family, and bonds that tie. We can learn from those who learned from Joseph that there is a Mother in Heaven. We can learn the importance of learning.
What can we learn from Hyrum’s life? (And why exactly is he included in this lesson?)
I believe that we can learn many things from Hyrum. One is how to be a good sibling and friend. Another is related, and is this: how to be a good supporting character. It is true that we are the leading actresses in our own lives, but it is just as true that we will be called on to be the supporting role in others’. We may be asked to support spouses and children, colleagues and classmates, parents and siblings, or simply neighbors and friends. Hyrum teaches us how to fulfill the supporting role with grace and love. He also teaches us how to be teachable. Hyrum was the older brother, and Joseph the younger. It might have been difficult for Hyrum to listen to him, and learn from him, but he did it humbly.
I suspect that Hyrum is included here alongside his more famous brother because he is the direct ancestor of Joseph Fielding Smith (as mentioned above). That is fine with me. He deserves to be remembered. ((Would I prefer that Emma Smith and Lucy Mack Smith also be remembered? Yes, yes I would.))His inclusion also offers a nice example of a prophet turning his heart to his fathers, as we are to turn our hearts to our fathers and mothers.
The manual includes beautiful (and sometimes lengthy) tributes to Hyrum, both from the Doctrine and Covenants and from Joseph Fielding Smith. I include just two here:
And again, verily I say unto you, blessed is my servant Hyrum Smith, for I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me, saith the Lord. (D&C 124:15.)
Who would not be happy to have such a tribute of confidence and praise given him, and coming from the Lord? Hyrum Smith was among the first baptized in this dispensation. Through his life he stood by the side of his brother Joseph and strengthened him by encouragement, faith and devoted love. Hyrum was a man of wonderful tenderness of heart. He possessed deep humility and loved his brother better than he loved his own life. This is shown in his death through which he obtained a martyr’s crown. He was fearless in his defense of truth. Verily he “loved that which is right.” (Joseph Fielding Smith on the previous passage)
This latter quote paired with another better helps us answer the next question.
This same quality of brotherly love was shown by the Prophet Joseph for his brother Hyrum. They passed through the same sorrows and joys together. The same persecutions descended upon them both. They shared the same dungeons for the Gospel’s sake, and when the time came for the sealing of their testimony, they shared together the crown of martyrdom. “In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated.” ((One interesting thing that the lesson noted is that I cannot recall now if I knew before, is that Hyrum received the same keys and blessings as Joseph.)) (D&C 135:3.)…
Brother Hyrum, what a faithful heart you have got! Oh may the Eternal Jehovah crown eternal blessings upon your head, as a reward for the care you have had for my soul! Oh how many are the sorrows we have shared together; and again we find ourselves shackled with the unrelenting hand of oppression. Hyrum, thy name shall be written in the book of the Law of the Lord, for those who come after thee to look upon, that they may pattern after thy works.
His leg soon began to swell, and he continued to suffer the greatest agony for the space of two weeks longer. During this period I [Lucy] carried him much of the time in my arms, in order to mitigate his suffering as much as possible; in consequence of which, I was taken very ill myself. The anxiety of mind that I experienced, together with physical overexertion, was too much for my constitution, and my nature sunk under it.
Hyrum, who was rather remarkable for his tenderness and sympathy, now desired that he might take my place. As he was a good, trusty boy, we let him do so; and, in order to make the task as easy for him as possible, we laid Joseph upon a low bed, and Hyrum sat beside him, almost day and night, for some considerable length of time, holding the affected part of his leg in his hands, and pressing it between them, so that his afflicted brother might be enabled to endure the pain, which was so excruciating, that he was scarcely able to bear it. ((Shared with me by Lavina Fielding Anderson, from Lucy [Mack] Smith, Mother of the Prophets, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith and His Progenitors … (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), Chap. 16.))
What can we learn from their willingness to be martyrs for Christ’s sake?
Immediately after Joseph and Hyrum were martyred, Sarah M. Kimball sought to console their matriarch, in the Mansion House. Lucy Mack grieved:
O I can’t tell for my poor heart does ache so how could they kill my poor boys O how could they kill them when they were so precious! I am sure they would not harm any boddy in the world but they would have done every boddy good there was poor Hyrum what could they kill him for he was always mild… ((Also shared with me by Lavina, from Sarah M. Kimball, Letter to Mrs. Serepta Heywood, n.d., from Nauvoo. Joseph Leland Heywood, Correspondence, 1841-47. MS 15328. LDS Church Archives.))
It is unlikely that we will be called on to be physical martyrs for Christ’s sake, though I do know one person who has done this. He was my last district leader in my mission. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was very sick. He would go home, be treated, and then come back out. The last time that happened, he was told that if he returned to the mission field, he would die. He returned anyway, and he did die.
It is more likely that we will be called to live, so I can’t help but think of this quotation from the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act… [the] crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, and to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
I echo the testimony of President Joseph Fielding Smith. “We raise our voices in thanksgiving for the lives and ministries of the Prophet Joseph Smith, of Hyrum Smith the Patriarch, and of the prophets and apostles and righteous men and women who have built on the foundation they laid.” Let us be those women.