The Secret Tragedy of the 116 Pages

We know the story well. In the summer of 1828, Martin Harris, dealing with the anger of his wife Lucy at his mortgaging their farm to publish a work translated by a visionary son of tenant farmers, pleaded with Joseph Smith to have some evidence that the translation was no fraud. Against his better judgment Smith relented because Harris held the purse strings and had proved loyal. Lucy Harris reportedly destroyed the pages, though Smith and others were worried that she would attempt to publish them as a test of the reproducibility of his translation. These pages were not retranslated, and the project continued. Beyond the occasional snide comments from Mormon critics and the rare dreams of document collectors and forgers, these lost pages have not amounted to much in the ultimate scheme of things. The book was published, the church founded, and now millions of Mormons venerate the Prophet and his scripture.

What is often poorly appreciated is the emotional context of this tragedy for Smith.

Martin Harris left for New York on June 14, 1828. The next day, Emma went into labor with their first child. Hoping for a boy to carry on the tradition of his beloved dead brother Alvin, Smith had named him and perhaps even (most of the evidence comes from unfriendly sources)[1] bruited his hopes that the new Alvin would be a prophetic assistant to this father, fulfilling the charge given to the original Alvin. Their hopes were dashed, and the baby was severely malformed and died within hours. Emma was apparently desperately ill for two or three weeks. Whether this encounter brought back images of his brother’s decomposed corpse from the 1824 exhumation is unknown but seems likely to me. Such images are notoriously persistent.

This second loss of Alvin came the day after he felt in his heart that he had failed God. For those three weeks, if Lucy Mack Smith’s account is trustworthy, Joseph Jr sensed in his heart that he had been cursed for failing God and Moroni. Unable to bear the uncertainty any longer, he rushed back to Palmyra to see his worst fears realized.

By Lucy Smith’s account, after his return from the Harris farm Joseph Jr was “weeping and grieving like a tender infant untill about sunset we persuaded him to take a little nourishment”[2].

We often think of Joseph as bold and strong, fearless in righteous indignation. We sometimes seem to love a Prophet whose only tears were those of a holy man for the world’s sorrows. Since appreciating this context for the lost manuscript pages, I have discovered tender feelings for this twenty-two-year old father who likely knew in his heart of hearts–however transiently and incorrectly–that his sin had killed his son.[3]

Notes

[1] Early Mormon Documents 2:264, 4:286, 4:347.[2] Lucy’s Book 419.[3]Seeking retributive providential explanations of infant mortality was much more common then than now.

Comments

  1. This is a heart-breaking and powerful vignette. Thanks for posting it, Sam.

  2. A very real and painful scene indeed. This is a great story and humanizes the prophet in a way we can all empathize with. I’d never known this story. Thanks.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. Interesting context, and you are correct, we often are unappreciative of these things. Thanks for posting this, a very poignant read for me.
    Best,
    Kerry (The Backyard Professor)

  4. These pages were basically a book of Lehi? That is what was lost?

    I sometimes wonder what it would mean to the church if we could find these pages, even if tampering was suspect.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    That Joseph Smith would still have room in his soul to mourn the 116 pages while grieving for his dead son speaks volumes as to his ability to shoulder tremendous burdens. Thanks for this insight, Sam. wow.

  6. Well done. Thank you.

  7. FWIW, Elder Holland took this angle in an interesting talk he gave, though it’s far from the main focus.

    Between the time he was asked to give it and the time he gave it, he was called as an Apostle.

  8. Very nice post. You have made great points that I haven’t considered.

  9. Lonny Mower says:

    Emma’s and Joseph’s desire to have children would continue to be fraught with tragedy. Emma’s 2d? pregancy resulted in twins, both of whom died shorty after they were born, while Joseph and Emma were living in Hiram, OH, with the John Johnson family. The deaths were brought on in part by exposure, thanks to a mob who kidnapped/tarred and feathered Joseph (and Signey Rigdon). None of Smith’s first 3 children survived. Joseph’s guilt must have intensifed. Sixteen years later in 1844 Emma was pregnant with what would be Joseph’s last child,David, at least with Emma. Joseph was murdered. If guilt could continue beyond the grave, Joseph must have felt some, again.

  10. 9: i agree, much sadness for joseph and emma. and more guilt for Joseph Jr than we normally acknowledge.
    you have inadvertently merged the Murdock boy with the Smith twins, who were stillborn–the Murdock twins’ mother died in childbirth, and their father was overwhelmed with grief and economic privation, so he gave the kids to the Smiths. The Murdock boy (i want to call him Joseph) died of measles in Hiram, and the early Saints attributed his death to a mob action, though a dramatic hour is unlikely to have changed the course of fatal measles. his sister survived to adulthood.
    Poor David Hyrum was a fascinating character who was ultimately institutionalized for “insanity” which sounds something like psychotic depression from the contemporary literature.

  11. Lonny Mower says:

    You are most correct about the Murdock twins. Julia Murdock Smith survived to adulthood. When counting the death of the adopted Murdock infant, (lets call him little Joseph Murdock Smith) 4 of the first 5 of Emma’s and Joseph’s children died shortly after birth. Even more reason to have more guilt. And regarding David, maybe it was his RLDS mission to Utah that caused/contributed to his psychotic depression. Perhaps he learned that his father was a polygamist after all, resulting in conflicting accounts of his father’s legacy, and he could never reconcile them.

  12. Lonny, you should really read the biography From Mission to Madness. It’s a wonderful read and full of fascinating insights into Joseph Smith’s family after he died. I think David was confused both by his father’s polygamy and by this strange prospect that he could perhaps take a position of great power in the Utah church if only he would betray his mother.

  13. In the context of this post, there’s some real insight into the meaning, for Joseph and Emma, of some of Joseph’s later sermons. Take, for example, the opening portion of Joseph’s March 20, 1842 sermon:

    March 20th Sunday Sermon of Joseph the Seer

    A large assembly of Saints gather together at an early hour to hear a discours deliverd upon the Subject of Baptism by Joseph the Seer, but as a young child was dead & his Corpes presented in the assembly it called forth many remarks from The speaker upon death & the resurrection which were in the highest degree interesting & his remarks upon Baptism was truly glorious to the believer in Jesus Christ. The following is a brief synopsis of some of the items presented in the discours:

    The Speaker read the 14 ch. Revelations, And sayes “we have again the warning voice sounded in our midst which shows the uncertainty of human life. And in my leasure moments I have meditated upon the subject, & asked the question Why is it that infant innocent Children are taken away from us, esspe-cially those that seem to be most intelligent beings?”

    Answer. “This world is a vary wicked world & it is a proverb that the world grow weaker & wiser, but if it is the case the world grows more wicked & corrupt. In the early ages of the world A richeous man & a man of God & intelligence had a better chance to do good to be received & believed than at the present day. But in these days such a man is much opposed & persecuted by most of the inhabitants of the earth & he has much sorrow to pass through. Hence the Lord takes many away even in infancy that they may escape the envy of man, the sorrows & evils of this present world & they were two pure & to lovly to live on Earth. Therefore if rightly considered we have, instead of morning we have reason to rejoice, as they are deliverd from evil & we shall soon have them again.

    What chance is their for infidelity when we are parting with our friends almost daily? None at all. The infidel will grasp at evry straw for help untill death stares him in the face & then his infidelity takes its flight for the realities of the eternal world are resting upon him in mighty power & when evry earthly support & prop fails him, he then sensibly feels the eternal truths of the immortality of the Soul.

    * Also the doctrin of Baptizing Children or sprinkling them or they must welter in Hell is a doctrin not true not supported in Holy writ & is not consistant with the character of God. The moment that Children leave this world they are taken to the bosom of Abraham. The ownly difference between the old & young dying is one lives longer in heaven & Eternal light & glory than the other & was freed a little sooner from this miserable wicked world. Notwithstanding all this glory we for a moment loose sight of it & mourn the loss but we do not mourn as those without hope. *

    (We should take warning & not wait for the death bed to repent.) As we see the infant taken away by death, so may the youth & middle aged as well as the infant suddenly be called into eternity. Let this then proove as a warning to all not to procrastinate repentance or wait till a death bed, for it is the will of God that man should repent & serve him in health & in the strength & power of his mind in order to secure his blessings & not wait untill he is called to die. (From Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 2:159-61)

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