Teaching My Son About Joseph Smith

By the time my son, Remy, was four, I had not told him the story of Joseph Smith, despite all his friends having the ability to recount the story with aptitude. My guilt at seeing him on the outside when the conversation about Joseph and his story occurred among tiny mouths on more than one occasion, drove me to want to tell the story before I was sure the words to say. I tried a few times, fumbling through the lines I’d said a hundred times over on my mission, the memorized pieces engrained deeply in my memory. But the words felt foreign and did not rise from my heart as they once did, and my son, so sensitive to his mother’s vibrations, was slightly off-put and confused by my recounting.

Once, as a missionary, a woman told my companion she couldn’t look me in the eyes as I told the first vision account because my eyes were too strong. I cried tears that were not feigned in too many living rooms to count when I repeated the final words of Joseph about his first vision, “One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” I said these words with conviction on street corners and trailing behind people who did not want to hear us on dusty roads that led to dirt-floored homes. I was so young, and was busy gathering my own evidence about a God who takes notice of us, and the story I told again and again was a foundation of that exercise. I spent 18 months in relative tiredness and discomfort because I loved these words, and yet, when I wanted to, I could not quite speak them to my son. Not because I had lost belief, not because my testimony had shriveled, but because it had changed and I needed more than a set of words to repeat. I needed to speak my own words from my own history and of visions I had had, however dull in grandiosity they compared. I needed to anchor my son in the words of his mother before I asked him to know the story of a boy from 1830.

I want my children to know that spirituality is not just about a set of words being passed between people to memorize and repeat, but spirituality is about stories of people, notions of miracles, evidences of lives well-lived. Spirituality is a nexus of past, present and future stories that have no choice but to intersect, to follow, to ask questions, to blow our minds and shift our paradigms.

At the time this need for telling my son about Joseph Smith felt pressing, we were living in Sweden, which consequently meant displaced, alone, foreign. We were staying a beautiful home full of light and candles in the windowsills. On the wall next to my son’s bed, the wallpaper was made up of golden crowns on a deep blue background. The bed was just wide enough for both of us to lay and make shadows with our hands before he slept.  One night, I determined I would tell him the story of Joseph Smith, without any nuances, just the story. We finished making shadows with our hands, then I started, then stopped, then started again. I was surprised to find that the words that came out were not the ones I’d said so many times as a missionary, but rather the most simple version about a boy who had a question, a boy who asked a question without shame, and the joy that the question was noticed and loved for being a question. I told my son that the miracle of a boy named Joseph was not that all questions were answered in the asking, but that he showed us that we can ask because someone is listening.

In that moment, the story of Joseph intersected with my own as I reflected on the miracles of my prayers that had been noticed, and my own son, at the beginning of his spiritual story opened himself to the idea that he too, was worth such a miracle.   A year later, I know that my son is not an expert on Joseph Smith, as so many of his small colleagues are, but I do know he has a better sense of a boy named Remy, and hopefully what that boy is capable of becoming as he faces a world full of beautiful questions.

Comments

  1. bshifflerolsen says:

    This is lovely. I experienced a similar scenario with my youngest, who is on the autism spectrum. I told him the story in the middle of a rainstorm as we drove from Deseret Book in Orem to our home in south Provo when he was five. Because of his neurologic challenges he’s never grasped gospel principles in the first telling. But that particular recounting of the First Vision brought home to me, rather than to my intended audience, the beauty and reality of my own testimony of answered prayer. Today, my son’s testimony is simply that God loves His children and that He is available to comfort us when we need Him. Nothing lasting can be built out of the details of Church history if that foundation doesn’t exist. Thank you.

  2. Either a religious story can explain the mechanics of some kind of theology, like Joseph Smith’s first vision: apostasy, anthropomorphic nature of God, etc. Or it can tell us about ourselves, as an allegory for our own lives. Your son is fortunate to get the allegorical first, which will make him feel special, not because of the superiority of his beliefs over apostate ones, but because he will feel the specialness of his own relationship with God.

  3. Thank you, Ashmae. Remy is a lucky kid.

  4. “I want my children to know that spirituality is not just about a set of words being passed between people to memorize and repeat, but spirituality is about stories of people, notions of miracles, evidences of lives well-lived. Spirituality is a nexus of past, present and future stories that have no choice but to intersect, to follow, to ask questions, to blow our minds and shift our paradigms.”

    Lives well lived… interesting; did you also fill him in on Smith’s more sordid past? The marrying of women who were already “sealed” to another man? Or the fact that he was arrested or detained at least 30 times in his life by authorities; some accounts have the number as high as 40 times. In what world does someone have that many run-ins with the law; yet it’s oddly never their fault. In today’s world, 2 or 3 times would be enough to say, ummm maybe it’s you and not everyone else. Bank fraud (multiple times), illegal banking (multiple times), conspiracy to commit murder (MULTIPLE TIMES)… Again I say, in today’s world; one of these charges would be enough to say, this person isn’t on the up and up. Remember though, we aren’t talking about today, we are talking about a time and place 180 years ago where you could disappear and it was very difficult for the law to find you. Layered risk people; if you heard about a person who was charged over 30 times with varying crimes today… would you trust this person?

  5. Fred, at least he wasn’t convicted and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Then we’d really have to question him! As an aside, not that alleged criminality or opposition its automatic proof of veracity, but if Joseph is right, then Satan is very real and determined to put a stop to Joseph from the beginning. So it’s no doubt that many people would be deceived then and now. Naturally, a skeptic would counter there is deception from the beginning, so that’s no reason to trust him.

    Which is where we fall back on the test of Moroni, coupled with Jesus fruits standard.

    I’m a better person, not because of Joseph, but because of the result of my choices, study, service, and personal revelation that sprung forth after exercising a particle of faith in the teaching Joseph was responsible for.

  6. Fred, I’m not discounting that those historical things may have happened, but I actually don’t really care all that much because I don’t worship Joseph Smith and I don’t plan to teach my children to. I can’t imagine in what world my small son would benefit by hearing those things at such a young age. He can, however, benefit by knowing some about the account of Joseph Smith (a young boy like him) and his experience of curiosity, asking questions, working to find answers and the miracle that he was answered.

  7. Nate, and Bshifferolsen, Thank you so much for your comments. I love that notion that we do not teach our children about the “superiority” of their beliefs, but rather we keep their spiritual understanding as something sacred that they cultivate in small and holy ways.

  8. Poisoned fruit Ashmae; “I’m not discounting that those historical things may have happened, but I actually don’t really care all that much because I don’t worship Joseph Smith and I don’t plan to teach my children to.”

    If these historical “things” as you put it have truth to them… how can anything he said be trusted; make no mistake, his credibility is at the heart of the Book of Mormon and the Church itself… if history shows him to be a con-artist and charlatan, then his word is worth nothing.

  9. Fred, either add something constructive to this *particular* discussion, or move along. This is not the place for venting general anger at Joseph Smith–you’ll find plenty of spaces for that elsewhere.

  10. Hi Fred, what’s your intent here? And why do it here? This is a story of a beautiful mother-son relationship, a story of love and support. If I heard about an exchange this sweet, so encouraging of personal identity and accountability, and about the love of God for his children, I wouldn’t care what it was based on: Joseph Smith, Confucius, Mohammed, Santa Claus, Aslan. So what’s your point? What do you want? All you have offered so far is an attack on someone’s belief — do you offer a better alternative? Are you more enlightened in some way by your own heartfelt beliefs? Based on your derision of one of the most genuine and loving people I know, I highly doubt it. However, if you have found a more holy way, I would be delighted for you to show me that way with more love, sincerity and honesty than Ash just did.

  11. Moving stuff, Ashmae. Thanks.

    One moment I look back on with fondness is when I took my then twelve-year-old son to visit a historic site. A missionary asked him a particular question that was intended on eliciting a particular chatechismal response. Instead my son responded in a very personal and yet very true way that completely rejected the missionaries call. The missionary was somewhat flumoxed, but I leaned over to him and quitely whispered my concurrence. Sometimes we forget the power of the stories we share outside of a very narrow context.

  12. Nathan, Thanks so much for your kind words.

  13. Stapley, That story made me tear up. It’s funny because my children are so young, it’s hard to imagine them working through these things on their own, so it is so moving to hear that they do get older and they do move compassionately and intelligently through so many complicated thoughts, and that they have parents close by to validate those efforts.

  14. Beautiful

  15. Wonderful post, Ashmae. Thank you.

  16. Thank you for this. I’ve wondered how I would tell my children when the time comes, and it’s nice to read how it ended up for you.

  17. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Isn’t this what a testimony is really about. Being able to tell people in your own words what you believe? Thanks for sharing those thoughts.