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