Last week Michael Kennedy spoke to members of the Las Vegas Stake. My in-laws are in that stake, and invited my wife and me to attend. It was a wonderful event.
I knew that Joseph Smith’s wife and children had not gone west with Brigham Young and the pioneers, and that his son Joseph Smith III had been the first president of the Reorganized LDS Church (now the Community of Christ), but I had also assumed that that meant that all of Joseph’s descendants were RLDS.
Wrong. Not that he has that many descendants, anyway. The highlight of the fireside for me was a seventeen foot long chart he and his wife displayed that showed the family tree of Joseph and Emma, including every single member of his posterity, including those still alive. The most surprising thing about it was how bare it was. Of the five children he had with Emma who survived to adulthood, only two have lines that would be considered normal for population growth from one generation to the next. Various reasons exist for this, but one example is particularly striking: one granddaughter joined the LDS Church and was so hounded by other relatives that she refused to have children, not wanting them to have to bear the stress she went through. Many of the lines of Smith’s descendants have died out.
(Incidentally, as I’m sure you’re thinking, Kennedy shared an important bit of trivia that bears on the number of descendants as well as a common criticism of the Prophet: though he was sealed to many other women, he doesn’t appear to have had children with any of them. DNA testing continues, but has ruled out every candidate tested so far. Though skeptics like to point out that some of the women he was sealed to were still teenagers, some of those “wives” were nearly twice his age. Strange, if he was abusing his hold over people just to “sow his oats,” don’t you think?)
The first half of Brother Kennedy’s presentation was his conversion story, which was just as entertaining as it was inspiring. He grew up in rural Nevada, unaware of his famous ancestor until the early ’70’s when he had to do a report for a history class about an important American in his family tree. Just as his father was showing him some family heirlooms about Joseph Smith, two missionaries knocked on his door. The pictures of Emma Smith on the dining room table made quite a conversation starter that day! Long story short, he got baptized. Within about a month, he found himself invited to the office of church president Harold B. Lee, who asked him what he knew about Joseph Smith. Only recalling what he’d gathered for his school report, he said that Joseph Smith had discovered Utah. President Lee then called into his office a relatively new apostle named Bruce R. McConkie for some tutoring.
In the mid ’80’s, Brother Kennedy was invited to attend the dedication of a church history site (I think it was the Newel K. Whitney store, but I could be remembering it wrong), where Gordon B. Hinckley, a counselor in the First Presidency, pulled him aside and gave him an assignment. President Hinckley said that the Church was having a rocky time establishing good ties with Joseph Smith’s descendants and, since Brother Kennedy was a blood relative, it should really be his problem. He was given a mandate to do the temple work for all of Joseph Smith’s posterity (something that had largely been restricted before), and then work on uniting the living members of the family.
The temple work is now done, and in 2005 he held the first family reunion in Salt Lake City, which was very well attended. Brother Kennedy said that every living member of the Smith family now knows that Joseph Smith had a testimony of his work, including plural marriage, (even if they haven’t accepted that message themselves) and that much more friendly ties between that family and the LDS Church have been forged. One of the most moving things about the fireside was hearing Brother Kennedy explain how some of the misunderstandings between us had evolved. Suffice it to say that if we have any negative assumptions about Emma Smith or her family, we’re dead wrong (Brother Kennedy was also a producer of the recent movie Emma Smith: My Story, which I’m very excited to see now).
That’s only a threadbare summary of the evening. I can’t believe Brother Kennedy’s story hasn’t been more widely told. If you ever have the chance to meet him or hear the details of his life, you should do so. The web site for his foundation, The Joseph Smith Jr. Family Organization, includes his email address.
I said before that the best part of the evening was seeing the family tree. A close second was at the end of the fireside when a woman in the Las Vegas Stake summarized the history of the 300-year-old violin she was holding, which had come across the plains with the pioneers and down through her family. That violin had played for Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, she said. Now, after more than 150 years, it played for a member of the Joseph Smith family again. What song did she choose for this historic occasion? The Prophet’s favorite song: “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” Everyone in the chapel was touched.
Finally, should any descendants of Jospeh Smith happen to read this, please know that you always have friends in the LDS Church, and that we hope you honor the memory of your great ancestor. May his work as a prophet lead you to peace in Jesus Christ, as it has for me and millions of others.