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Some scholars have presumed Joseph initiated marriages whenever there was an opportunity for Joseph to be in the same town or house or room as an alleged wife. This seems to be the rationale behind the belief that Joseph fathered children with Hannah Dubois in the early 1830s or Compton’s suggestion that Joseph married Lucinda Pendleton in 1838.

In focusing on sexual desire, scholars have ignored the deaths that ripped Joseph’s soul and informed his vision of family and eternity. There may have been more heart-rending funerals than the six enumerated here: brother, son, friend, wife & mother, daughter, and father. [1] But these six deaths occurred at key times. It appears these deaths influenced Joseph’s evolving understanding of God’s promise to the fathers and children written in Malachi and quoted by the Angel Moroni.

Beloved Brother: Alvin Smith.

Alvin was Joseph’s eldest brother, a man Joseph both loved and respected. The Angel Moroni told Joseph that Alvin was to be the one who must accompany Joseph if he was to retrieve the ancient record from the Hill Cumorah. [2] Alvin’s death before being baptized devastated Joseph.

When Joseph directed the people to complete the first temple in Kirtland, he had not yet imagined the unbaptized dead could be redeemed or that families could be bound together. Joseph was therefore completely surprised when he saw Alvin in a vision of the Celestial Kingdom. [3] The vision showed Joseph there was a way for those who died without baptism to be accepted into heaven, but the revelation did not explain how this was to be done.

Beloved Son: Cyrus Livingston Nyman.

Jane Harper [Nyman] and William Nyman appear to have joined the LDS Church in the early 1830s. Before they accepted the gospel, however, two of their sons had died. [4] Their son Frederick had died in infancy. Son Cyrus Livingston was a teenager when he died. [5] As was common for early Latter-day Saints, Jane would have presumed Cyrus was damned, since he was someone of age who had never accepted the gospel in this life.

In April 1840 Joseph Smith spoke to the Saints at the tenth anniversary of the formation of the Church. His text was the story of Nicodemus and the need for baptism. Those who documented Joseph’s comments said Joseph’s observations were “very beautiful and striking… throwing a flood of light on the subjects which were brought up to review.” [6]

For Jane Nyman, however, the sermon rekindled her grief about her son’s damnation. Jesus had told Nicodemus:

“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [7]
And “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” [8]

History does not capture how Joseph became aware of Jane’s torment. But later events indicate it likely weighed on his mind from April 1840 to August 1840. [9]

Alvin would be saved. Why not Cyrus Nyman? Yet how could they be born again, these mature loved ones who had died without baptism?

Beloved Friend: Seymour Brunson.

Seymour Brunson joined the Church in early 1831. He had served several missions and endured the hardships of Missouri. By 1840, Brunson was one of Joseph’s body guards, a member of the High Council, and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Hancock County Militia. When Seymour Brunson died on 10 August, 1840, he was only 42 years old. [10]

Seymour’s funeral was held on a Saturday, August 15, 1840. The line of mourners stretched for a mile. [11] The mourners would have comforted Seymour’s family, honoring his life of sacrifice and reassuring them Seymour would be saved.

Jane Nyman was there as well, [12] and likely comforted those in need of comfort. But she would have been torn. Seymour would be saved in God’s Kingdom. Her son, Cyrus, she believed, would forever be damned.

Then Joseph began to speak. He talked of the resurrection, reading from the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15, where Paul wrote to convince the Corinthians of the resurrection:

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

But now is Christ risen from the dead…

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

…[Christ] must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. [13]

It was a typical Christian funeral. But Joseph saw Jane Nyman in the crowd and knew that he needed to comfort her as well. So he continued:

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? [14]

Joseph said, “Paul was clearly talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them.”

He spoke of Jane, “This widow [15] [has read] the sayings of Jesus ‘except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Not one jot nor tittle of the Savior’s words should pass away, but all shall be fulfilled.” [16]

Joseph would later write:

“If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent, and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred, who have not heard the Gospel, or the fullness of it.” [17]

“Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem [the dead] out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.” [18]

Those who heard these teachings were filled with joy, but none more so than Jane Nyman. Less than a month later, Jane Nyman asked Harvey Olmstead to baptize her on behalf of Cyrus. [19] Olmstead did as Jane asked, performing the proxy baptism in the Mississippi River. Vienna Jaques, [20] five years older than Jane, rode her horse down into the river to witness the ordinance. [21] This baptism where Jane Nyman acted on behalf of her son was the first proxy baptism performed within the Mormon faith.

Afterwards Joseph Smith asked what words were used in performing the ordinance. When Joseph heard what had been done, he approved what had taken place. [22]

Ordinances on behalf of the dead could be performed by proxy. In less than a week, the power of this principle would explode in terrible urgency.

Beloved Wife & Mother: Marietta Rosetta Carter Holmes.

In 1837 Joseph Smith arranged to officiate at the marriage of Jonathan Harriman Holmes and Marietta Carter in a double ceremony with Wilford Woodruff and Phoebe Carter. [23]

Marietta was the ward of Jared Carter, who had built a second home in Kirtland in hopes of obtaining a second wife. [24]

By August 1840, Marietta and Jonathan had two daughters: a toddler named Sarah and a newborn named Mary. They lived very close to Joseph and Emma Smith, about two blocks east of the homestead, just off Water Street. [25] Emma herself had recently given birth to a son, Don Carlos.

A strong summer storm hit Nauvoo in the days after the Brunson funeral. What happened next would remain a guarded secret. The only record survived in the stories Marietta’s toddler was told to explain where her mother had gone. Sarah’s stories about her mother’s death are shrouded in the trappings of the Missouri persecution narratives, telling of burned cabins and mob attack. [26] But Sarah’s stories describe events that happened in August 1840, a time frame of supposed peace in Mormon history.

That fateful day late in August, 1840, a group of men from Missouri approached Water Street. Their logical target would have been the distinctive two-story homestead where Joseph and Emma lived. But in the storm it seems they became confused and attacked the Holmes cabin. They found Marietta there, almost certainly with her infant daughter. Eventually the men fled, leaving the cabin in flames and the mother fatally wounded.

In Sarah’s subsequent stories her mother took shelter with neighbors who fetched her father. Marietta died on August 20, 1840. [27] She was only twenty years old.

Sarah’s Nauvoo stories talk about living in the Smith home, playing alongside the Smith children, mistaking Porter Rockwell for an enemy while keeping watch for those approaching the Smith homestead, kneeling in prayer alongside Joseph Smith and Joseph’s son, Joseph III, and stealing cookies from the Black cook, Jane Manning. [28]

Clearly, Sarah was an intimate of the Smith household following the death of her mother. So it seems reasonable the tragic fate of Sarah’s mother was of particular concern to Joseph Smith.

Joseph knew of the New and Everlasting Covenant that could bind husbands and wives together for eternity. He had received the keys of that power more than four years earlier, but had yet to use that power to bind his own marriage. As they buried Marietta, Joseph may have realized the ordinance of eternal marriage could also be performed for those now dead, just as baptism could be performed by proxy.

Though there is nothing written in 1840, there is a hint that Jonathan Holmes was the first widower offered the possibility of being reunited with his deceased spouse in eternity. [29] Eliza Snow would write a poem in September 1842 that she would dedicate to Jonathan, inspired by a sermon on the resurrection. Eliza modified the poem shortly thereafter, but the original manuscript of the poem appears to have concluded with these stanzas:

Like two angels that kiss each other
In the presence of the sun—
Like two drops that run together
And forever are but one,

May your mutual vows be plighted—
May your hearts, no longer twain
And your spirits be united
In an everlasting chain. [30]

Beloved Daughter: Mary Holmes.

It is not clear whether Joseph and Emma expected young Mary Holmes to survive her mother. In the weeks between Marietta’s death and the death of her baby, Emma Hale [Smith] likely nursed the motherless child alongside her own son. [31]

Mary passed away on September 10th, [32] her death echoing the many infant deaths Joseph and Emma had suffered. When a baby stops nursing suddenly, a nursing woman’s body goes into mourning. [33] Though Mary was not Emma’s child, the loss would have been intense.

The grief of Jonathan Harriman Holmes would have been profound. Holmes had resumed living in the Smith household, having lived in the Smith’s household in Kirtland for roughly two years prior to his marriage.

Joseph, seeing the suffering of his close friend, may finally have seen how the sealing power could bind parents to their children and children to their parents. It could seal infant Mary to Jonathan and Marietta. It could seal his own departed children to himself and Emma. It could seal him to his own father, bedridden since March 1840.

Beloved Father: Joseph Smith Sr.

No sooner was Mary buried than Joseph’s father took a turn for the worse.

Joseph Smith’s father was a weak and flawed man. [34] Yet Joseph loved his father, and sought to honor him whenever possible. Joseph had confided in his father regarding his boyhood visions.

On September 12, 1840, Father Smith began vomiting blood. Until that day the family had hoped Father Smith would recover. [35]

Joseph’s mother Lucy documented the scene. The recent attack on the Holmes cabin was clearly a concern to the Smiths. Lucy recounts Joseph promising to stay by his father’s side, saying that “Bennett is here and he will fix things so that we will not be in danger of being disturbed by the Missourians.” [36]

Father Smith proceeded to bless his family, first his wife, then his sons, and finally his daughters. But it is the blessing on Joseph that is of particular interest.

“Joseph, my son, you are called to a high and holy calling. You are called to do the work of the Lord. Now, hold out faithful and you will be blessed, and your family shall be blessed, and your children after you. You shall live to finish your work.”

At this Joseph cried out, “Oh, Father, shall I?”

Father Smith continued:

“Yes, you shall. You shall live to lay out all the plan of all the work that God requires at your hand. Be faithful to the end. This is my dying blessing on your head in the name of Jesus. I also confirm your former blessing upon you, for it shall be fulfilled. Even so. Amen.” [37]

Lucy’s record suggests Joseph cried out specifically because Father Smith told him he would have to finish “the work” before he could die.

It is possible Joseph had confided in his father about the New and Everlasting Covenant and his reluctance to obey. Alternately, Mormons believe God inspires individuals to say words that may only have meaning for the person receiving the blessing. Either way, the work Father Smith mentioned was not something Joseph could hope to leave to his successors.

After the blessings were done, Father Smith comforted Lucy. The frailties of old age slipped away as he died, for he remarked, “Why, I can see and hear as well as ever I could.” Minutes later Father Smith remarked “I see Alvin.” Shortly thereafter he quietly stopped breathing. [38]

Joseph’s renewed attempt to obey the 1831 commandment regarding plural marriage and the New and Everlasting Covenant would start in earnest after the 1840 blessing he received from his dying father.

Six Funerals and a Blessing – Notes.

Joseph first taught it was possible to perform proxy baptisms on behalf of the dead at the 1840 funeral of Seymour Brunson. The doctrine was inspired by Jane Nyman’s grief for her deceased teenaged son and Joseph’s 1835 vision of his deceased brother, Alvin, in heaven.

The violent murder of Marietta Holmes days after the Brunson funeral caused great concern, likely heightened by the death of her infant daughter less than a month later. Marietta’s death, from an attack likely intended for Emma Hale, may have prompted Joseph to emphasize the importance of joining families together for eternity despite the separation of death.

Finally, the blessing Joseph received from his dying father emphasized that Joseph would live to “lay out all the plan of all the work that God requires.” In response, Joseph cried out, suggesting this was a duty he dreaded. Minutes later, Joseph’s father sealed the blessing with his death.

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[1] Many of the young women Joseph would covenant with had lost parents during 1840 and were living in the Smith household. Joseph promised the women they could be linked to the rest of their family members, it is unclear Joseph realized at the time their parents died.

[2] Smith, Lucy, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, Liverpool, 1853, p. 88

[3] D&C 137:5

[4] The Rachel Neyman Story, online at https://familysearch.org/photos/stories/514482

[5] Familysearch.org, Cyrus Livingston Neyman (L7GB-KDL). The Rachel Neyman Story claims Cyrus left Butler, Pennsylviania with his family in 1830, he and Frederick are the only children who could have died before the family left Butler.

[6] Times and Seasons Vol. 1. Whole No. 6., Commerce, Illinois, April, 1840, recounting events during the “General Conference held April 6, 1840.”

[7] John 3:3

[8] John 3:5

[9] In August 1840 Joseph would reveal the doctrine that proxy baptisms could be performed on behalf of the dead, after noting Jane Neyman, “a particular widow in the crowd whose son had died without baptism.” He then quoted the verse from John 3 where Jesus told Nicodemus baptism was required–the same verses Joseph had quoted during his April 1840 Conference address.

[10] See Seymour Brunson Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seymour_Brunson retrieved 16 February 2014.

[11] Account of Heber C. Kimball, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 49.

[12] Jane Neyman’s presence is inferred from Joseph’s comments regarding the widow whose son had died.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:19–26

[14] 1 Corinthians 15:29

[15]  Jane’s husband, William, was still alive. But he would die less than three weeks later.

[16] Susan Easton Black, “A Voice of Gladness for the Living and the Dead’ (D&C 128:19),” in Religious Educator 3, no. 2 (2002): 137–149.

[17] History of the Church, 4:569; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Mar. 27, 1842, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff.

[18] D&C 128:22, from an epistle from Joseph Smith the Prophet to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, containing further directions on baptism for the dead, dated at Nauvoo, Illinois, September 6, 1842.

[19] The delay between the August sermon and Jane’s request that Brother Olmstead perform the proxy ordinance may have been related to William Nyman’s death. If related, it is not clear if William Nyman objected or if there had been hope he might recover enough to perform the proxy ordinance himself.

[20] Vienna Jacques is sometimes listed as one of the women who covenanted with Joseph Smith, though the purported evidence did not lead to her inclusion in Todd Compton’s Sacred Loneliness.

[21] Black, “A Voice of Gladness for the Living and the Dead’ (D&C 128:19).”

[22] Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, (2003), 251–262, online 16 Feb 2014 at http://www.lds.org/manual/print/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times-student-manual/chapter-twenty-doctrinal-developments-in-nauvoo?lang=eng, retrieved.

[23]  The double ceremony was performed by Frederick G. Williams on 13 April 1837. The Prophet Joseph had intended to perform the marriages, but threat of violence related to the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society required Joseph to be absent from his home. See Activities of Esquire Williams, 2012, online 16 Feb 2014 at http://byustudies.byu.edu/images/ webpage/fgw/activitiesesquirewilliams.pdf.

[24]  Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 39. See discussion of Jared Carter in the prior chapter.

[25] The Community of Christ map shows the Holmes property at the northwest corner of block 146, just north of Water Street and block 157. The Smith homestead is located on the northeast corner block 155, just south of Water Street.

[26] The stories Sarah told her children are contained in the records for Jonathan Harriman Holmes available at the Lands and Records Office in Historic Nauvoo. The family stories lump Marietta’s death with the Missouri persecutions (e.g., Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 546) but Marietta died in August 1840 in Nauvoo (see Cook, Lyndon, Nauvoo Deaths and Marriages, 1839-1845).

[27] Cook, Lyndon, Nauvoo Deaths and Marriages, 1839-1845.

[28] Records for Jonathan Harriman Holmes record, Nauvoo Land and Records Office.

[29] The first ceremony known to bind a widower to his deceased spouse was performed for Joseph C. Kingsbury in April 1843. Eliza’s poem was written in September 1842.

[30] Eliza R. Snow journal, 1842-1882 / Snow, Eliza Roxcy 1804-1887 / MS 1439 / Microfilm. Online 3 Jun 2014 at https://eadview.lds.org/dcbrowser/MS%201439/. The poem is on images MS1439_f0001_00009.jpg and MS1439_f0001_00010.jpg

[31] Although it is possible some other mother could have nursed Mary Holmes, Jonathan and Sarah lived in the Smith home after Marietta’s death, making Emma the most likely wet nurse for the child.

[32] Cook, Lyndon, Nauvoo Deaths and Marriages, 1839-1845.

[33]  I experienced this firsthand at the death (and abrupt weaning) of my own son.

[34] Those disenchanted with the LDS Church point out that Father Smith sometimes drank. He had also “allowed” events that impoverished the family, which forced his sons to seek every opportunity to make work to pay the debt. The failed mortgage was the reason Joseph hired himself out as a “dowser,” which would lead to the claims Joseph was a money digger.

[35] From The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, edited by Scot and Maurine Proctor.

[36] ibid.

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid.