Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - 01

Richard Lyman Bushman
Chapter 1: "The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816" (pp. 8-29)

And so our summary/review of Richard Bushman's seminal biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling at last commences! After a brief prologue recounting Josiah Quincy Jr.'s account of his visit to Joseph Smith Jr. in May 1844, Richard Bushman launches into the first chapter of his monumental biography of Joseph Smith by examining the history of his ancestors. The opening pages of the chapter - begun from the perspective of immediately after Joseph's death - make clear that much of the material for this early portion is dependent upon the account of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.'s mother. Following this line, Bushman begins by recounting Lucy's own ancestry. Lucy Mack Smith was the daughter of Solomon Mack and Lydia Gates. Solomon was born on 15 September 1732 in Lyme, Connecticut, as the son of Ebenezer Mack and the grandson of John Mack, a prosperous trader. When Solomon was four, however, Ebenezer lost his land and Solomon had to work for a "hard-hearted and miserly farmer" (10). Solomon Mack became obsessed with becoming wealthy. Solomon served in the French and Indian War and used his discharge pay to buy a farm in Lyme. He married Lydia Gates in 1759. At this point, Bushman informs us that Lydia was the daughter of Daniel Gates, a deacon from the nearby Connecticut town of East Haddam. Bushman then recounts Solomon's later risky ventures, in which he sold his property in Lyme to gain rights to 1600 acres in New York as well as some property in New Hampshire.

Lucy Mack herself was born on 8 July 1775 in Gilsum, New Hampshire. Solomon learned the art of making saltpeter from Lydia's brother and "earned a dollar a day teaching the art from town to town" (10). He enlisted in the army and, in 1778, "signed on with the crew of a privateer" (11). Solomon was more absent than present from his home life for fourteen years, continually grasping after more, but in 1788, "he returned home with little to show for his exertions" (11). Solomon felt defeated, but Bushman notes that "the Mack family did not dwell in mean poverty. At various times, they owned farms and houses. Solomon had the capital to purchase land, freight vessels, buy a schooner, and to owe and be owed hundreds of dollars" (11). In 1811, Solomon Mack experienced a religious conversion.

As for Lucy's life, Bushman notes that she remembered her early life as marked by persistent death and illness. She watched Solomon endure repeated injuries, and in the 1790s she endured the deaths of her sisters Lovina and Lovisa from consumption. Lucy described her life in 1794 as having been one of grief, brooding, and melancholy. She attempted to turn her attention to religious activities - Bible reading and prayer - but felt that the heavily sectarian attitude of Christianity in her day was a serious obstacle (a considerable foreshadowing of her famous son's later struggles). Lucy's religious instruction came mostly from her mother Lydia, who had joined a Congregational church at age thirty. Lucy's brother Jason became "a religious seeker before he was sixteen, pursuing the spiritual gifts of early Christianity outside of established churches", and at age twenty became a lay preacher. Bushman notes that "Mack religion was family religion, and nothing outside the family satisfied her [Lucy]" (13).

After Lovisa and Lovina died, Lucy moved in with her brother Stephen, who had in 1793 moved to Tunbridge, Vermont, to pursue a career as a merchant. Stephen became a close friend of an older man who had moved to Tunbridge in 1791: Asael Smith. While at Tunbridge, Lucy met Asael's second son Joseph, whom Bushman describes as "a strong, tall young man of twenty-three" (13). After returning home for a while, Stephen persuaded Lucy to return to Tunbridge. Lucy married Joseph Smith on 24 January 1796, the marriage being performed by a justice of the peace named Seth Austin.

At this point, Bushman turns his attention to the Smith family. In 1638, a twelve-year-old Robert Smith sailed from England, and his descendants came to reside ten miles north of Salem in the village of Topsfield (14). Robert's son Samuel Smith was one of the accusers in the Salem Witch Trials. Samuel had a grandson named Samuel who "was repeatedly chosen assessor, selectman, town clerk, representative to the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature), and delegate to the Provincial Congress. Most important, Samuel was frequently chosen moderator of the town meeting, a position commanding universal respect" (14). This Samuel, who died in 1785, was the father of Asael Smith. Asael did not grow up wealthy for all his father's prestige, and hence "Asael scrambled for a toehold in the spare New England economy, much like Solomon Mack" (14).

In 1767, when Asael was 22 years old, he married Mary Duty of Windham, New Hampshire, and had three children during the five years he still lived with his father. The second of these children, Joseph Smith Sr., was born 12 July 1771. For the next several decades, Asael and Mary continually moved from town to town trying to establish themselves. Asael enlisted in the army in 1776 and inherited half of his father's property in 1785. After a trade with his brother Samuel Jr., Asael realized that the old farm was a hopeless cause, and so he sold in in 1791, leaving Asael, Mary, and their eleven children in need of a home. They purchased 83 acres of land in Tunbridge, Vermont, and in November 1791, "the Smiths crowded into the fourteen-by-ten-foot hut built by Jesse and Joseph and prepared for the Vermont winter" (15).

Here, Asael and his family achieved a measure of success. Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack, after their marriage, received a farm from Asael. By 1802, "the Smiths had a compound of adjoining farms totaling between 300 and 400 acres", which "brought Asael modest eminence in Tunbridge" (15). Between 1811 and 1820, Asael and many of the children moved to St. Lawrence County in New York. At this point, Bushman takes the opportunity to note that in 1830, Joseph Smith Sr. visited his family there to bring copies of the Book of Mormon, with the result that four of the brothers converted, and Asael and Mary were favorable. Asael died in 1830, but in 1836 three of the brothers as well as Mary moved to Kirtland to join the other Latter-day Saints. Bushman then gives some excellent insights into the religious texture of Asael's family:

The switch to Mormonism was not difficult for Asael. He had been dislodged from the crumbling orthodoxies of New England Congregationalism. His father had seen to the baptism of all four of his children in Topsfield's Congregational church, but after the Revolution, Asael drifted away from orthodoxy. He was drawn to the teachings of John Murray, a Universalist preacher, who emigrated from England in 1770 and began preaching in Gloucester, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles from Topsfield in 1774. [...] Murray carried the Calvinist idea of irresistible grace to its logical conclusion and included every soul within the circle of divine love. [...] Asael was moderator of the group [the Tunbridge Universalist Society], and Joseph and Jesse were among the seventeen [members]. That was the high point of the family's Universalism. Thereafter, Asael's children gravitated back toward orthodoxy before turning to Mormonism; Universalism became an overlay on family religion. But Asael's own convictions did not waver; his grandson George A. Smith remembers him writing "quires of paper on the doctrine of universal restoration" before his death. (17)

Bushman at this point finally resumes the chronological sequence of the narrative, turning to the early married years of Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith. They stayed in Tunbridge for six years. "A first son died in childbirth, and then two years after their married Lucy bore a second son, Alvin, followed two years later by a third boy Hyrum" (18). The family then moved seven miles west to the larger town of Randolph, where Joseph opened a store with good he'd purchased from Boston on credit. Around this time, Joseph began to contemplate getting in on the ginseng trade. (Ginseng could be shipped to China and sold for a high price.) A merchant named Stevens tried to pay Joseph $3000 for the lot, but Joseph refused. Joseph wanted to circumvent middlemen in hopes of making even more money. However, Stevens' son sailed to China on the same ship and reported falsely to Joseph that the venture had been a failure. In fact, the product had sold well and Stevens cheated Joseph. When Joseph found this out, Stevens fled to Canada, and Joseph's attempts at pursuit failed. In the meantime, "Joseph found he had $2,000 in bad debts from his customers and nothing to pay the $1,800 owed in Boston", and so he sold the farm for $800 and used Lucy's $1000 wedding gift to pay off his own debts (19). And so the Smiths became tenants rather than owners. They moved seven times in the next fourteen years, mostly in a small circle between the Vermont towns of Tunbridge, Royalton, and Sharon. In 1811, they crossed the Connecticut River to Lebanon, New Hampshire, and then over again to Norwich, Vermont, and finally in 1816 moved to New York.

After sketching this picture, Bushman returns to the details, noting that in the spring of 1803, the Smiths were in Tunbridge for the birth of their daughter Sophronia. They later rented a farm from Solomon Mack. Bushman notes that Joseph and Lucy had a strong social network of Lucy's father and brothers in the area for support. While living on their rented farm in Sharon, VT, Lucy gave birth to another son on 23 December 1805: Joseph Smith Jr., the subject of this biography. They then moved to Tunbridge again, and Samuel Harrison Smith was born there on 13 March 1808. Then in Royalton, Ephraim Smith was born on 13 March 1810 (and died on 24 March 1810), and William Smith was born 13 March 1811. Despite some losses and the constant moves, Lucy remembered this time as a fairly happy one. The family moved to New Hampshire in 1811. "Hyrum, age eleven, was sent a few miles north to Moor's Charity School, associated with Dartmouth College. Alvin, thirteen, and Sophronia, eight, went to common school. Joseph Jr., five, and his two younger brothers, Samuel and William, three and six months, remained at home. In the summer of 1812 a baby girl, Katherine, joined the family" (20).

However, in 1812 and 1813, the Connecticut Valley was swept by an intense outbreak of typhoid fever, with which all of the Smith children fell ill. Sophronia nearly died. Joseph Jr., age six, was free of the fever after two weeks, but he developed a sore in his armpit and endured two weeks of intense pain before it could be diagnosed and lanced. That infection cleared up, but Joseph began to experience great pain in his left shin and ankle - osteomyelitis. Three weeks later, Dr. Stone made an eight-inch incision, which gave only temporary help. The bone had become infected. The doctor then had to make an even deeper incision, down to the bone itself. Still the infection didn't clear, and so Dr. Stone had to consult some of the surgeons at Dartmouth Medical College, such as Nathan Smith and Cyrus Perkins. They proposed amputation. Lucy and Joseph Jr. both objected, and Lucy begged the doctors to simply excise the infected portions of bone. Fortunately for Joseph Jr., Nathan Smith had great experience in the area and had developed an advanced surgical procedure for just such an occasion:

As the operation began, Lucy went out into the fields and left Joseph in his father's arms, the infected leg resting on folded sheets. The surgeons bored holes on each side of the leg bone and chipped off three large pieces. Joseph Jr. screamed when they broke off the first piece, and Lucy rushed back into the room. Sent away, she came back again as the third piece came off. Blood gushed from the open wound, and Joseph lay on the bed drenched in blood. (21)

As Joseph slowly recovered, fourteen additional pieces of bone began to surface. Recover took three years. The Smiths sent Joseph to live in Salem for a time with his uncle Jesse. Joseph hobbled on crutches until the family moved to New York. "From age seven to ten, he was either in bed or on crutches. To the end of his life he was slightly lame, possibly because of the trauma" (21). Using this episode as an insight into Smith family dynamics, Bushman presents Lucy as "a spirited woman, outspoken and candid, forceful under pressure", who gave a high-strung sort of comfort (22). Joseph Smith Sr., on the other hand, was emotional but steady, capable of bearing what Lucy's nerves couldn't.

After a brief discussion of Lucy's affection for her husband, Bushman notes that her "only explicit reservation about her husband was his diffidence about religion. After his brief flirtation with Universalism in 1797, Joseph Sr. hovered on the margins of the churches. Her own quest for peace of mind and a church had not slackened since girlhood, and her husband's refusal to become involved troubled her" (23). Bushman tells the story of when, in Randolph in 1803, Lucy fell ill and sensitive to sound, and a Methodist exhorter knocked on their door, being turned away by Lydia so as not to disturb Lucy any further. This gives Bushman an occasion to describe evangelical preaching at the time of the Second Great Awakening:

The main purpose of evangelical preaching was to set people on a quest for salvation. The conventional method was to convict people of their sins, to persuade them that they were utterly unable to please God through sheer obedience. Lucy's sense of "a dark and lonesome chasm, between myself and the Saviour" was a classic expression of the feeling the preachers wished to evoke. Having been brought so low, she should have been prepared to throw herself entirely on the mercy of God and plead for grace. In the ideal case, a new hope arises in the heart, and the person begins to rejoice in the glory and goodness of God. That realization opens a flood of happiness and love and an overwhelming sense of the beauty of the world. The scriptural phrase "born again" describes exactly the renewal that has occurred. (24)

Although Lucy didn't listen to any of this preaching during her illness, she was no doubt familiar with it. During her illness, when it seemed she might die, Lucy describes having begged the Lord to spare her life, and in return having heard a voice from heaven comforting her, after which she regained health. After a continued search for comfort among the churches of her area, she decided that none of them were what she was looking for. "She resigned herself to Bible reading and self-instruction. Eventually she found a minister to baptize her without requiring that she join a church" (25). Lucy did attend Methodist meetings in Tunbridge, and Joseph Sr. accompanied her, although his father Asael and brother Jesse were irate over Joseph's behavior. The revivals did excite Joseph Sr.'s interest in religion, but he couldn't accept "the institutional religion of his time", as expressed in several of the striking dreams he had around the time in 1811 (25). Joseph Sr. saw the religious scene of his day as "empty and silent, or fiercely hostile to true wisdom and understanding", harshly condemning the 'class of religionists' (26). Bushman presents readers with a striking, helpful, and well-presented smmary of Smith family religion:

It would be hard to place the Smiths in any one religious tradition. The family's religious culture was too eclectic. Smith and Mack relatives comprised an inventory of late-eighteenth-century alternatives. Joseph Sr.'s dreams linked him to radical Protestantism with its taste for spiritual manifestations. Solomon Mack underwent a classic evangelical conversion at the end of his life. Lucy's crisis in 1803 took the same form. Her brother Jason was a seeker. Asael's Universalism was a form of vernacular rationalism, an offspring of the Enlightenment. Asael used Thomas Paine's Age of Reason to quash Joseph Sr.'s flirtation with Methodism. Possibly in Vermont and certainly later in New York, Joseph Sr. was involved in magical practices, an unorthodox but not unusual way of connecting with the supernatural. The Smiths were exposed to a conglomeration of doctrines and attitudes, some imported from Europe, others springing up in New England, none sorted or ranked by recognized authority, all available for adoption as personal whim or circumstances dictated. The result was a religious melee. (26)

Turning away from the subject of religion, Bushman notes that after the Smiths were financially broken by the medical bills, they moved in 1814 to Norwich, Vermont, and rented a farm from 'Squire Moredock'. Lucy painted oilcloths, and Joseph Sr. likely "peddled small items and hired out as a farmhand" (27). By this time, their family was increasingly on its own. Unfortunately for them, their crops failed several years in a row. In their third year there - the "year without a summer" - snow fell in June. (A few months earlier, in March 1816, Lucy had given birth to Don Carlos Smith.) The cold and dry summer led thousands of Vermonters to leave the state, and it was in this migration that the Smiths left Vermont for New York.

In the summer of 1816, Joseph Sr. set out for Palmyra, New York. The rest of his family followed him later, but not before being hounded by last-minute creditors, leaving Lucy with only $60-80 for the trip. She and her children traveled with Caleb Howard and his team, and Bushman notes that by the end of the trip, Lucy "was paying innkeepers with clothing and bits of cloth" (28). Also unfortunately, Caleb Howard was - for want of a better word - a jerk. (I can think of several better words, actually, but they all seem to be profane...) Wanting the daughters of the Gates family (another group of fellow-travelers) to ride next to him, he forced Joseph Jr. to limp through the snow for days at a time. When Alvin and Hyrum protested, Caleb Howard struck them with the butt of his whip. When the Smiths ran out of money a few miles west of Utica, Caleb Howard tossed their belongings into the street and nearly set off with their wagon and team, but Lucy caused a scene and succeeded in retaining their things. Joseph Jr. was assigned to the sleigh of the Gates family, and one of their boys knocked Joseph down, leaving him in a pool of his own blood. A stranger found Joseph and carried him into Palmyra. "Lucy arrived at Palmyra, after a journey of three to four weeks, with a few possessions and nine cents. Her last payment to the innkeepers was made with Sophronia's eardrops" (29).

The first chapter of Bushman's biography makes clear that Bushman has mastered the primary sources needed to present a robust picture of Joseph Smith's life. He writes captivating and engaging prose, effectively drawing the reader into the plights and fortunes of the Smith family. One can't help but sympathize with them, especially with the many sufferings of Joseph Smith Jr. In the second chapter, Bushman presses onward to cover Joseph's life from their 1816 arrival in Palmyra through 1827.

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