A great, great granddaughter of Joseph and Emma Smith takes us on her journey from animosity and fear of the Church to conversion.
I would like to share with you my journey to find my great-great grandparents Joseph and Emma Smith. When I was young my mother taught me about Heavenly Father, the Savior, and the Holy Ghost. This foundation was integral throughout my childhood as I encountered many trials and traumas which could have taken me down dark and lowly paths were it not for this knowledge she gave me. It also prepared me for the introduction to my great-great grandparents Joseph and Emma Smith, two individuals I was not aware of until age twelve.
I was born August 7, 1962 in Maryville, Tennessee to Joseph Frederick Smith and Mary Sue Roberts Smith. By the time I was twelve years old we had moved nearly forty times. Yet my heart was always filled with cherished memories of the Smoky Mountains and our mountain people who lived there. My Pappaw Roberts was part Cherokee and a spiritual giant. I remember he always seemed so grand to me. He was a good man who was always searching for spiritual truths and taught my mother the same. His example of following the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all things was something that my mother relied on for strength and comfort, for she suffered much physical abuse at the hands of her mother who suffered from a depressive illness.
At the age of nineteen, Mother married my father, Joseph Frederick Smith. My father is a man of many talents, especially music, excelling in the style of Bluegrass. He passed that love of music on to his children, teaching us all how to sing and harmonize. Wherever we lived, Dad would take part in bluegrass parties or “jam” sessions. We loved performing with him and this love of music carried down to my own children.
When I was nine years old living in Oregon, I was abused by a neighbor. After this experience I was debilitated in every way. I stopped singing. I would not do anything in public. I would take zeros in school rather than give an oral report. I looked down when I walked; I would not look people in the face.
My self-image suffered severely; I hated myself. I thought I was ugly and stupid. This destructive thought process drained me to the point I had no energy. I withdrew to my room. I became lost in writing, reading, and music; food became my best friend. The more I hated myself, the more I ate. Food was my only joy aside from music and reading. I was made fun of at school and did not have the inner strength and confidence to let the remarks roll of my back or throw a comeback comment their way and laugh it off. Every comment rang like truth within my heart and it eroded my spirit.
There is one thing I did not forget. The example of my mother’s devotion to Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost showed me that I would always have three friends who loved me no matter what, and I leaned on that. Whenever I felt alone, I talked to Jesus like he was my best friend sitting right beside me. Though I heard no reply, I felt His presence, and I knew He heard me. Knowing that I had those connections kept me grounded and helped me to refrain from unhealthy activities that some victims turn to such as; drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. There was something in me that just did not want to cross those lines.
In 1973 I bought an album by the Osmonds called “The Plan.” This purchase would change my life. I can still picture pulling the album out of the sleeve and putting the record on. The music began to play. As the album cover fell open into the palms of my hands, my mind was opened to something I had never seen before. It was my first introduction to the Plan of Salvation. As I looked at the visual images of pre-mortal life, childhood, eternal marriage, and returning home, I heard the words “Let me take care of you and keep an eye on you….”
I looked at the record as it was playing, and then at the illustrations before me, realizing that this album was completely different. This was not “Puppy Love”, or “One Bad Apple.” The moment left me feeling removed from everything while I tried to sort out what I was experiencing. I was very aware of a presence that was both comforting and enlightening. However, there was a struggle within me that I did not understand; I felt compelled to keep the experience to myself, especially from my father. Such emotions were confusing to me. I had always loved my father a great deal and could not understand why I felt impressed to keep this music to myself. So I followed my feelings, absorbing the music and this desire to know more, in silence. In the future I would learn the reason for caution.
One day I was listening to the song “Are You up There?” My father walked past my room pausing beyond my bedroom door. He made a negative comment that I do not recall. I knew he did not care for The Osmonds because their hair was too long for his taste, so he thought they were hippies. I was moved to ask him that day why he didn’t like them. I will never forget the look on his face as he replied, “They are Mormons.” I had never seen such a look on his face before. His countenance changed to something cold and dark. I knew very little about spiritual matters at that point in my life, but I did recognize that the atmosphere changed, and it didn’t feel good. So from that point I never listened to the music unless I had my headphones on.
Two months after this experience we traveled to Ava, Missouri to visit my Grandma Smith. She lived in a log cabin on a hill nestled in the rich and lush foliage of the Ozark Mountains. On this particular visit, I walked into the living room of the cabin, which led into a small sitting room and sat down. As I rested my head against the cushioned back of the couch, my eyes fell on two portraits hanging side by side on the wall before me.
It is hard to describe the feeling I had at that moment except to say that for a brief period it seemed as if time stood still. My hearing did not pick up audible sounds around me. I felt as if there was no one else on earth except me and those two portraits. My attention was first drawn to the man in the portrait which hung on the left; the familiarity was deep and instant. The gentle, fair complexioned face housed eyes that seemed to hold stories in their backdrop hues of gray and piercing blue; knowledge in a face so fair, a history that spoke volumes which reached out and embraced me in unknown depths.
I felt a longing to get close to this man. I was drawn to know who he was, when and where he lived, and why his portrait was in Grandma’s house. What did it have to do with me? I felt a mixture of sadness and joy, and a feeling I can only describe as gut-wrenching, as I looked upon his gentle but unsettling smile.
Tears began to stream down my face as I looked to the portrait beside the man and searched the face of a lovely woman. She seemed to convey a noble bearing, with raven black hair, eyes large and round, their color a beautiful dark brown. Again feelings of admiration and sadness rose in me, so much so that I could not bear to look any longer and went to find my Grandmother.
I asked her who the people in the portraits were and she responded, “Those are your great-great grandparents, Joseph and Emma Smith. Joseph established the ‘true’ church.” The true church? I had no idea what she meant. I only knew that these two people, the man in particular, seemed very familiar to me. I was overcome with an immediate love for them that was precious. I felt an intense yearning to learn everything I could about them both. The fourteen years which followed were filled with many interesting paths, leading me on a quest for knowledge about my ancestors. Such paths and journeys are often the target of the adversary and his fiery darts, and mine was no exception.
Not long after our visit to Grandma Smith’s we moved to Ava, Missouri and settled in her log cabin. This placed me in the heart of my father’s family, and we became very close. It was not a peaceful situation however, for among them I witnessed elements of bitterness, which had been passed down from earlier generations. Even though I had the teachings of my mother to help me recognize the signature of the adversary’s handiwork, some of the residue of the family traditions could not help but fall upon me. I learned that the church my Grandma had referred to was the Church of Christ Temple Lot, an organization my Grandpa Smith joined after leaving the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1925.
It was in the company of my father’s family that I heard rumors that Brigham Young had my great-great grandfather Joseph killed. Their strongly-held belief that Brigham was bent on destroying Emma and the children, usurping the work for which my ancestor had died, turning it into his own corrupt organization became impressed upon my tender mind. This would be the first and only time in my life that I would hate someone, for it was not in my nature to have such feelings, but a feeling of instant hate settled in my heart toward Brigham Young.
I asked my father about Joseph Smith. An intelligent man in all areas of history, specifically the scriptures, I knew my father had many of the answers I sought; yet I was curious why he never spoke of such things before in our presence. The conversations started out informative, but soon I stopped asking questions altogether, because only a small amount of time was spent in speaking of the history of Joseph. Instead I was tutored in his version of the nature of Brigham Young, and his band of Brighamites who blindly followed him to the west. A feeling of unpleasantness would fill my entire being. It was clear I would have to find the information I sought elsewhere.
As I passed through my teenage years, there were precious moments that kept the desire to know more alive within me. I was always aware of the man with the blue eyes, and for some reason I felt a closeness to him, which never went away. I recall two events specifically that branded me with a deeper desire to know my own family history.
One day when I was fourteen, I found myself alone in the house with nothing to do. My Grandfather Smith’s trunk was in my father’s study, beckoning. I knew it was filled with old things, but I never had the opportunity to look in it. That afternoon I discovered treasures I would never forget. Inside the trunk were old books, documents, letters, and images from the past. I stared at familiar faces on tin types, whose eyes gazed back into my own eyes as if to say, “We dearly love you, please come to know us.” Who were they? What did they have to do with me? Somehow I felt that I knew them intimately without knowing anything about them.
A chill ran through me as I ran my fingers across the image of their faces. The drive to learn my history was magnified immeasurably as I pored over letters written by Joseph and Emma’s sons and books that were passed from one generation to the next. Tears fell uncontrollably. There was a deep sadness within me; I yearned to learn more but had limited access. I put the items back in the trunk and walked over to my father’s roll-top desk, there on top lay a “Book of Mormon.”
By this time my siblings and I had stopped going to my father’s church. I had heard my father preach from The Book of Mormon, but I had never read it. I looked out the window and beheld the loveliness of the day. The sun was bright and there was a soft breeze blowing the trees and flowers. My gaze fell back upon the book. I picked it up, thumbed through it, and then placed it back down resting my palm upon it. I had a love and respect for it without knowing why, except that my ancestor was responsible for it being on the earth. Still, I did not know its full history. My hand rested almost lovingly upon the book and a rush of warmth filled my being, I inhaled sharply.
Looking out the window I felt momentarily frozen in time. As my gaze remained fixed on the elements of nature, I was given to know, in a language a fourteen-year-old could understand, that the book was of God, and that my great-great grandfather who brought it forth was a good man who had performed a great work for the Lord. Thus, at the age of fourteen, I received a testimony of Joseph and The Book of Mormon without having read it. Because of what my mother taught me about the Holy Ghost, I accepted those feelings without question. The experience of viewing the old pictures and holding the “Book of Mormon” established a tender devotion within me keeping alive the desire to know more as I made my way to adulthood.
In 1989, I was married with a three-year-old son, Bryan, and was expecting my daughter, Leah. The fire within me concerning my family history reached an unbearable point. I only had four generations back to Joseph and Emma and little information beyond. Ava was a small town with limited access for in-depth research beyond the library; where I went one day to ask where I might go to do family history research.
I was told the best place to go was a family history center.
That made perfect sense. So I asked where to find one and was told it was sixty miles away in Springfield, Missouri at the LDS Church. “What is that?” I asked, eager to find this wonderful place where I might do research. “The Mormon Church,” She replied.
The woman may as well have run a knife through me. Imagine my feelings, my hopes dashed in one fell swoop. There was no way I was setting foot into that building! My father warned me about Mormons, missionaries in particular; how they are well trained, and if not careful you could be easily snookered! I left feeling defeated and almost fuming as I sat in the car. Then the spirit whispered to me it was more important to get the information no matter where it came from. So I decided I would take my tablet with my four generations and act like I knew what I was doing so I would not have to talk to anyone for fear of getting snookered.
As I walked into the Family History Center I was greeted by a kind lady wearing a black tag; a missionary. She asked if I needed any help and I replied, “No.” Then she showed me to the computers and said if I needed anything to let her or her husband know. I then knew I had it made, I would simply sit down and figure everything out for myself. I would not need to ask for any assistance; but after I clicked on “enter here,” everything went down-hill. I tried several avenues but did not what I was doing. I was not about to announce, “I need help,” five minutes after I sat down. Unbeknownst to me these missionaries had some kind of sixth sense or something. Just as I formed a brilliant plan of how to make a successful exit, the Elder came over, sat down beside me and asked if I needed any help.
“Sure,” I replied with a smile, inside feeling thoroughly defeated. He responded, “Well, I’ll tell you what. Let’s take a name through and I will show you how it is done. What is the furthest name you have?” I thought to myself, “What? I can’t tell him that!” I was afraid to tell anyone I was Joseph Smith’s descendant. “I need a surname,” He said. “Smith,” I answered hesitantly. And as he typed it in I began to think that maybe it would not hurt after all, what could happen here in this little room….with these two missionaries?
“Okay,” he said, “I need the given name.” I paused for a moment looking down at my tablet. It was a moment I will never forget; all manner of thoughts passed through my mind. Then I thought, “Maybe he won’t notice!” “Joseph,” I said quietly. There was no reaction. I was so relieved that I sat back against my chair and let out a breath.
“Birth date?” That was an easy one. “December 23, 1805,” I responded, almost jubilant at my success in eluding attention. The Elder turned and looked at me suddenly, “Really, now! Would that be Joseph the Prophet?” He smiled. I would have been upset that my attempts at anonymity failed were it not for his excited behavior. I thought saying such a thing would bring harm to me. He called his wife over and they began asking a barrage of questions about me and my history; questions I could not answer. I left feeling very ignorant about myself, filled with an awareness to once and for all find out the history behind my ancestry.
There were two things I noticed about those missionaries. They were very kind, and they had the Holy Ghost with them. I knew it because of how my mother taught me. But it contradicted everything my father had said about these people, and I was not sure how to handle the experience. I did feel comfortable enough to keep going back, and it was during those visits that I learned about a town named Nauvoo. From the time my eyes fell upon the word I knew I had to go there.
In the summer of 1989 some family members and I traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois. It was the first visit for us all, which perplexed me. As I walked along on the guided tours and glimpsed the scenes before me, the beauty of the grounds, the solitude of the graves of my ancestors, I could not understand why it had all been kept from us.
Upon entering the Homestead everything took root in my heart. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I looked up and breathed in sharply. It was one of those moments that people identify with déjà vu. I felt as if I had been there before. I struggled with the emotions coursing through me, realizing it was more. It was as if I was having a memory that was not my own. As I breathed, thoughts and feelings about Joseph and Emma filled my heart. Tears fell down my face and I lagged behind the others so that I might absorb as much as possible.
I dealt with similar feelings before, but not so deep and personal. This was profound, intimate, filled with sorrow, yet held together with joy; a precious gift that seemed broken. I walked out of the Homestead with an assignment that came in whispers. Like when a friend is standing beside you urging you to read a particular book or visit a certain place because it was so rewarding. Only I could not see who was whispering to my heart. I only knew that there was a host of what felt like family and friends about me and an unmistakable presence that I had felt from childhood, a familiarity that had no name until that day, Joseph. It was evident to me that I needed to visit Nauvoo often to learn for myself the true history of my people, Joseph and Emma, and why I felt so drawn to them on such a deep and personal level.
While I was making trips once a year to Nauvoo, the Osmonds established their family theater in Branson, Missouri, a mere fifty miles from our home in Ava. I wanted to go to see the Osmond’s show, but I procrastinated. After six years of procrastination, I think the Lord got tired of waiting for me to go. We won tickets on a radio program to a theater show in Branson. When we went to pick up the tickets it was for the Osmonds. I was thrilled! Two days before the show, Merrill Osmond had a vision of Joseph Smith. In this vision Joseph showed Merrill the Smith posterity. Merrill said it was as if he was looking upon a sea of faces and they were miserable. Joseph said to him, “This is my posterity, please help them.”
Two days later while I was watching the show, Merrill came on stage and started to sing a gospel number.
His face was illuminated and the Spirit filled the theater. I knew that for some reason I was being directed to meet this man, so after the show we met and talked in depth.
By the end of the conversation I told him that I was Joseph’s great-great granddaughter. His face changed dramatically as he said, “Oh, I need to talk to you!”
Through the friendship with Merrill, and the Osmond family, I learned that Mormons were not the monsters they had been portrayed to be when I was young. I felt that I could ask them more about their church, and they would not lead me falsely. Merrill invited me to take the discussions in his home with the sister missionaries. By the third discussion, I knew I was supposed to be baptized. As any convert will tell you, that is when the flood gates of the adversary open. I was hit with all of the issues I had grown up with; Brigham Young, polygamy, baptism for the dead. All I knew for certain was that the Holy Ghost was telling me to go forward. Because of my mother’s teachings of never questioning that guidance even when it doesn’t make sense, I knew that if I did what I was prompted to do that all would be well. I was baptized June 7, 1998. For the first time my eyes were truly opened, and it felt as if I had come home.
In the years following my baptism my heart, mind, and spirit were opened to a greater knowledge of the healing power of the Savior. The strength I gained from that knowledge gave me an assurance I could be made whole again and be at peace with the traumas of my past. I forgave willingly and let go of the pain. I focused my energies on attending to my church callings and working to help pull the Smith posterity together. The desire within me to serve was magnified and the more I served the more I healed.
My story would not be complete unless I told how I overcame my bitterness toward Brigham Young. I truly feel that one of my missions is to convey to the world the importance of letting go of the past and healing to become a united family.
The first Sunday I attended Relief Society I was very excited. I had heard so much about it! When I walked in the room I was handed the manual. I looked down to behold the image of the man I had come to hate; Brigham Young. I eased out of the room and went out the front door, throwing the book in the trash on my way. I resolved to never go to Relief Society while they were using that manual. I would only attend sacrament.
After two years I was ready to go to the temple. Our temple was in St, Louis, but I felt that I was supposed to go somewhere specific. I began to ask my friends what their favorite temple was. One friend mentioned the Manti Temple and as soon as I heard the name something clicked. I felt that was where I was to get my endowment. I asked her where it was located; she told me Utah. I was terrified! I couldn’t go to Utah. That was a scary place!
I remember riding through Salt Lake City in 1980 with my sister as we were traveling from Idaho to Missouri. When we got to Salt Lake, I crouched down in the seat until we were into one of the canyons! But now I knew I was supposed go there, so I saved enough money for the trip. There was something I needed to attend to before we could leave. I had not dealt with my feelings about Brigham Young.
Two days before we were to leave for Utah I was taking some elders home from Zone Conference. One of them asked me if I was going to learn all about Brigham Young while I was in Utah. I felt a surge of bitterness race through me. Tightening my grip on the steering wheel, I replied that I would not have time; I asked why he wanted to know. The atmosphere within the car grew very quiet and there was a shift of emotion. This particular elder was very special. There were times I saw him discuss things with people, and I knew by the change in his countenance that the Lord was working with him. When he did not respond to my question I glanced over at him and groaned to myself. I could tell the Lord was working with him, and I knew that I must listen.
“What is on your mind,” I asked him. This elder did something very wise; he bore his testimony of the Savior first. The Spirit filled the car, lowering my defenses. He then bore his testimony of Joseph Smith and my defenses went down even more. By the time he got to Brigham Young, I didn’t have any defenses left! There was a signal ahead and the light turned red. When I hit the brakes something washed over me and all of the hatred I had ever felt toward Brigham Young was taken from me. It was so sudden it took my breath away. I believed in and had witnessed the healing power of the pure love of Christ, but this was the first time I ever experienced it myself. I told the Elder there was an empty space where all of the hatred had been and that I would learn all I could about Brigham Young.
Part of our trip to Utah included a tour of Temple Square, including the burial place of Brigham Young. When we got to his grave I asked for a moment alone. I knelt down to pray beside the place where he rested. In that prayer I asked him to forgive me for all of the hatred I had borne against him for so many years and to forgive my family for carrying that hatred from one generation to the next. Then I forgave him for the things he had said and done because the hurt was created on both sides. In that moment I heard a heavenly choir sing “Nearer My God to Thee.” In that moment the following thoughts came to me. All of the things that our ancestors experienced, even the pain they may have caused one another, they experienced those things, not me. They are on the other side of the veil and have reconciled those things, it is wrong to carry it on.
It was then I knew that I had a work to do in speaking to people about healing and uniting. The times we live in call for us to be strong and united so that we may be able to handle the things which are coming. It is important we learn to forgive ourselves and one another. Love ourselves, and one another, and let go of the issues of the past. We cannot hold on to those issues and the Savior at the same time. It is vital to have the Savior as the central part of our lives for it is through Him that we are able to overcome all things.
The impact of my mother’s example is far reaching. Because of her teachings I came to know the Savior and the Holy Ghost early in life.
The strength from the knowledge and testimony I developed gave me the grace to forgive my abuser and let go of the pain so I could become whole. The discovery of my grandparents, Joseph and Emma and the relationship I formed with them as I became acquainted with their lives and history, further magnified and strengthened my testimony of Heavenly Father, the Savior and the Holy Ghost and the restored gospel. Within two years of my baptism my children joined the Church.
My son and I began to share our story at firesides in 2000. My sister and mother would accompany us. The beauty and fullness of the Spirit amongst the Latter Day Saint people confirmed to them the scripture, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” and at length they were baptized into the Church.
The love and talent of music is a gift that has been passed through several generations of Joseph and Emma’s posterity. Their children and grandchildren were very adept at composing and singing beautiful songs. My son, Bryan, and I have written, recorded, and performed many songs about our ancestors. I have become grateful for the rich and tender knowledge of my heritage. It has been a spiritual feast for the past eleven years to share our story and music at firesides all over the United States.
The fullness of the gospel is the most precious thing we can have in our lives and through it we have the capability of sharing a fullness of joy with all of those we come into contact with. The words of my great-great grandfather Joseph are deeply rooted in my heart, “Shall we not go on in so great a cause?”
Kimberly Jo Smith
Kim currently serves as an Ambassador to the Smith family for the Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society. For more information visit our website at https://www.josephsmithjr.org/.