One of the reasons I love the Joseph Smith Papers Project is that I find that familiar stories from Church history are often even more interesting and testimony affirming when I study them in greater detail. For example, many members of the Church are aware that Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered late one night by an angry mob and then in an act of extraordinary courage preached at a Sabbath meeting the next day. The tarring and feathering occurred in Hiram, Ohio, late in the evening of March 24, 1832.
In studying the larger context for this event in Documents, Volume 2, of The Joseph Smith Papers, we learn many additional details that can help us even better appreciate the faith and sacrifices of Joseph and Emma Smith. Only three weeks before this violent encounter, Joseph was commanded by revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 78) to travel to Missouri, nine hundred miles away, to counsel with Church leaders there. Were you or I to be tarred and feathered, we might feel entitled to significant recovery time before leaving on the assigned journey. Instead, Joseph proceeded without delay, leaving for Missouri on April 1, only a week after the violence.
Additional details make the story more remarkable as well as heart breaking. By March 1832, Emma Smith had borne three children, all of whom had died within a short time of their births. In April 1831, Joseph and Emma adopted newborn twins named Joseph and Julia from a man named John Murdock, whose wife had died in childbirth. At the time of the tarring and feathering, little Joseph, now about eleven months old, was ill, and he died a few days later, on March 29. Joseph Smith believed the boy’s condition was made worse by exposure to the cold night air when the Prophet was dragged from his home by the mob. Joseph and Emma were still dealing with the fresh pain of this child’s death when Joseph left for Missouri.
Given these circumstances, it was not easy for Emma to be left alone with her one young child when Joseph traveled to Missouri. Joseph feared for his family’s safety in Hiram and counseled Emma to move to Kirtland while he was gone. She did so but had a hard time finding somewhere to stay. His later history reports that Emma was “very disconsolate” when Joseph returned. Church members today sometimes overlook the sacrifices Emma made in living her faith and supporting her husband.
Joseph’s return journey to Ohio took longer than expected because Newel K. Whitney, with whom Joseph was traveling, was injured in a stagecoach accident. Joseph and Bishop Whitney stopped in Greenville, Indiana, waiting for Whitney’s leg to heal. While there, Joseph received news that Mary Smith, the young daughter of Hyrum and Jerusha Smith (Joseph’s brother and sister-in-law), had died.
The letter that Joseph wrote Emma from Greenville on June 6, 1832, is, in my view, one of the most interesting and moving of all of Joseph Smith’s papers. To me, the letter offers a sort of conclusion to the events of late March 1832 in that it shows he was an ordinary person who felt pain and sadness while also revealing the type of character a person would need to have to suffer repeated persecution and adversity and yet move forward with such incredible fortitude.
Commenting on the sad news he had received, Joseph wrote to Emma, “I was grieved to hear that Hiram had lost his little Child I think we Can in Some degree simpathise with him.”
Continuing, Joseph gave what I think is one of the most important keys to understanding him. He wrote, “I will try to be contented with my lot knowing that God is my friend in him I shall find comfort I have given my life into his hands I am prepared to go at his Call I desire to be with Christ I Count not my life dear to me only to do his will.”
The letter also shows what Joseph was like as a husband and father, a son and brother. “I am happy to find that you are still in the faith of Christ and at Father Smiths [in Kirtland],” he wrote Emma. “I hope you will Comfort Father and Mother in their trials and Hiram and Jerusha and the rest of the Family. . . . I Should Like [to] See little Julia and once more take her on my knee and converse with you on the all the subjects which concerns us. . . . I Subscribe myself your Husband the Lord bless you peace be with [you] So Farewell untill I return Joseph Smith Jr.”