Part 6 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
In Memory of An
Infant Son of
Joseph And Emma
Smith June 15th, 18281
This inscription can still be found on a little gray headstone at the McCune Cemetery near Harmony, Pennsylvania, the town where Emma and Joseph Smith resided during the early stages of the translation of the Book of Mormon. The baby, whom they might have named Alvin after the prophet’s deceased older brother, died hours after it was born.2 But this wasn’t the only tragic loss the Smith’s sustained during that dark month in 1828. It happened just as Martin Harris was busy losing the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. Joseph spent two weeks nursing Emma back to health following the death of the baby then made the 150 mile journey to Palmyra where he learned about this other loss. He feared telling Emma “lest I should kill her at once,” and he feared he’d lost his prophetic commission through his impertinence.3 Soon he dictated a revelation which sternly called him to repentance, but which also extended mercy: “[T]hou art still chosen,” the revelation asserted, “and [the Lord] will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season” (D&C 3:10).4 The revelation makes no direct reference to the devastating loss of Smith’s child the previous month.
In fact, the loss of the manuscript has overshadowed the loss of the Emma and Joseph’s child in most subsequent accounts of Joseph’s life. This is perhaps due in part to the limitations of the historical record—no specific description of the child appears in the revelations, journal entries or other voluminous records Joseph himself oversaw after 1828. A few troubling descriptions of the child do appear in critical affidavits collected in the 1830s and thereafter. These descriptions provide a detail that serves as one possible explanation for the Mormons’ lack of attention to the baby: it evidently bore the marks of disability. Tracing the invocation of Joseph’s disabled, deceased child sheds light on changing attitudes toward disability in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Initially, mention of the deformed corpse didn’t appear in sources friendly to Joseph, but in affidavits collected to discredit him. In 1834 Sophia Lewis reported that she “was present at the birth of this child, and that it was still-born and very much deformed.” The description was not intended to evoke sympathy for the bereaved. Rather, it was included in an affidavit attacking Joseph’s character, and it appeared in multiple newspapers and the first full-length anti-Mormon book.5 Decades later, another woman claimed Emma “had a child which was still-born and much deformed” and a Yale graduate would invoke the rumor as further justification for his medical diagnosis of Joseph as a epileptic.6 Up to 1903, such descriptions appear only in critical sources.
As described in my thesis, a deformed baby could be interpreted by Joseph’s contemporaries as being a divine curse, as was the case for Anne Hutchison and Mary Dyer in earlier American history. Perhaps this is why Lucy Mack Smith avoids that point in what I believe is the only direct reference to the child in Mormon publications of the period. She described him as a “dear little stranger” who was “very soon snatched from [Emma’s] arms and borne aloft to that world of spirits before it had time [to] learn good or evil….”7 Over time, ascribing disability and death to God’s direct providence largely fell out of favor. By the time Riley wrote his book in 1903, disability was invoked in a secular fashion to underscore hereditary inferiority, which is precisely how Riley used it. Such concepts would inform the eugenics movement and subsequently even Nazism.
Fawn Brodie would rely on Riley for several observations in her biography of Joseph Smith, but she does not use baby Alvin as he did. She peripherally mentions the death but not the deformity while recounting the loss of the BoM manuscript pages.8 Richard Bushman also briefly mentions the death but no deformity during his account of the lost manuscript pages.9 Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery pay more attention to the loss in their biography of Emma Smith. They related the incident–including the “deformity”–in a way that is likely to evoke sympathy in modern readers.10 Sam Brown suggests Smith blamed himself for the death of the child and focuses on the child’s name (Alvin) as an example of a waning Protestant necronym tradition.11 A recent Ensign photographic essay notes that the Smith’s first baby, “born with un-described birth defects, survived only a short time.” Authors no longer point to the child as evidence of Smith’s sin or genetic inferiority, but as a way for modern readers to sympathize with the parents. Disability in this case has moved from a curse to a tragedy.
This seems appropriate enough to us; we assume the loss of a firstborn child must have been devastating for Emma and Joseph despite the fact that it happened in the middle of the manuscript debacle. This raises important methodological considerations for the crafting of historical narrative more generally when we ask how the event impacted Joseph. Comments on Smith’s immediate psychological reaction or the event’s effects on his later life appear speculative at best. Two psychological biographical approaches to Joseph’s life speculate as to how the event impacted Joseph’s Book of Mormon translation, which condemned infant baptism in the strongest of terms.12
It is striking to me to think about how little attention is paid to this event in biographies of Joseph and in the descriptions of his developing theology. Later in his life when Joseph delivered a stirring sermon in the presence of the body of a deceased child it seems to me he would have had his own experiences in mind. After all, affidavits referred to his deformed, dead son while attacking his personal character. It seems he was speaking from personal conviction as much as from prophetic authority:
It is an unhallowed principle to say that such and such have transgressed because they have been preyed upon by disease or death for all flesh is subject to death…all flesh is subject to suffer—and ‘the righteous shall hardly escape’…many of the righteous shall fall a prey to disease to pestilence &c by reason of the weakness of the flesh and yet be saved in the kingdom of God.13
Joseph’s teachings on child resurrection, infant baptism, and the suffering of the innocent must have been deeply informed by his real-life experiences. In other words, Joseph’s experiences and those of his fellow Mormons influenced the questions he asked and thus the revelations they received. I believe this mode of participatory revelation explains, in part, the lack of specific revelations in our formative canon in regards to intellectual disability. There is no question that historians have to do the best they can with a severely fragmented historical record. This is yet another reminder about how one event that goes somewhat unrecorded or for whatever reason gets obscured in the historical record can be lost in later interpretive history. The potentially formative experience of Alvin’s death for Joseph receives only a word or two in book-length treatments of the prophet’s life. How did the loss really affect his later teachings? I can only speculate about such things while a deformed, dead child becomes a mere footnote in a story about a lost manuscript.
In memory of an infant son.
3. Lucy Mack Smith described these circumstances in her family memoir. See Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 419.
4. The remark that Joseph was “afflicted for a season” is found in the manuscript of the revelation, and it was present when the revelation was first published in the 1833 Book of Commandments. It no longer appears in the version found in today’s Doctrine and Covenants, though. The revelation’s tense has also been changed from telling Smith he would eventually be given his ability to translate back to telling him it has been given back. Thus this experience in Joseph’s life provides another moment to reflect on the ways our canonized revelations have changed over time. The recent Ensign discusses revelation revision. See Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds. Manuscript Revelation Books. Facsimile edition. Vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 9; Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley, Riley M. Lorimer, eds. Published Revelations. Vol. 2 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 19-20.
5. See n.a., “Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (May 1, 1834): 1; E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: E. D. Howe, 1834), 269. See also Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:298.
6. n.a., “Prophet Smith’s Family Relations,” Salt Lake City Daily Tribune 18 (17 October 1879): 2; Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:320; I. Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1903), 347. Recall that Lucy Mack Smith said the child apparently lived a few hours, rather than being stillborn.
7. See Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 412. Childhood innocence, not disability, was the way Lucy situated the baby in regards to salvation.
8. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 54.
9. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 67.
10. Avery and Tippetts, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Prophet’s Wife, “Elect Lady,” Polygamy’s Foe, 1804-1879 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), 27, 314 fn13.
11. Brown, In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 56.
12.See Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 125; Robert D. Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 90. Of course, the BoM said nothing on the subject of deformity and divine curses. Vogel claims that Isaac Hale and other Methodists may have given Joseph grief over the baby’s death which led him to get back at them through his Book of Mormon translation, but infant baptism wasn’t so salient a point for most Methodists to lead to the explicit condemnation in Moroni 8. Methodists generally believed infant baptism was a good thing, but not necessarily that those who did not receive it would certainly be damned. I hope to flesh this out later.
13. Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen, eds. Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839. Vol. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 352-353.