Book collector and Smith descendant finds gospel treasure

Adjacent to Highway 136 here, on the route between Church history sites in Nauvoo and Carthage, Estel G. Neff owns and operates the Old House Bookstore offering a colorful collection of second-hand books and antique curiosities. But perhaps the most interesting object in the shop is the proprietor himself.

As a direct descendant of Joseph Smith Sr. and a recent convert to the Church, Brother Neff is a remarkable link between past and present pertaining to Church history. Appropriately, his baptism in Nauvoo on April 5 of last year occurred during the sesquicentennial year of the Saints' 1846 exodus. With his full beard, he gives the appearance of an 1840s figure.Of the posterity of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, the only ones to go west with the Saints were the family of Church patriarch Hyrum Smith, brother of and companion in death to the Prophet Joseph Smith. The rest stayed behind, including Katherine Smith Salisbury, sister of the prophet and Brother Neff's great-great-great-grandmother.

She and her husband, Wilkens Salisbury, never lived in Nauvoo but settled in Ramus, north of Carthage. For 150 years, Brother Neff's ancestral roots have remained in western Illinois.

Brother Neff was born in Ferris, just north of Carthage. He and his wife, Cecel, have raised five daughters while living in Keokuk, Iowa, and later in the country between Hamilton and Nauvoo. He worked in the grain and feed business and managed farms. Through the years the Neffs have collected books related to Mormonism because it pertains to his family history. About nine years ago, he decided to unpack the items and open the store in Hamilton.

Not long after that he became more interested in religion.

"I had never belonged to a church," he related. "My wife always went to her church, raised the girls that way. But I decided I wanted to do something different."

He gravitated to the LDS Church because of its emphasis on Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. He became acquainted with many of the Church service missionaries who serve in Nauvoo and Carthage and in 1995 began attending services and activities at the Nauvoo Ward.

At a ward "cabin fever party" held Feb. 3, 1996, in connection with the observance of the sesquicentennial of the exodus, he told a Church News reporter, "If I were to join a church, it would be this one."

It didn't take him long, barely two months. Some 130 people filled the chapel of the Nauvoo meetinghouse for his baptismal service on April 5. Speaking at the service was Susan Easton Black, BYU professor of Church history and doctrine.

"I'd met her here and gotten very well acquainted with her," he said. "She had left word at the [Nauvoo] Visitors Center that if I was ever baptized, they were to notify her."

The baptism was performed by Hyrum Mack Smith, a great-grandson of President Joseph F. Smith and a former visitors center director. While serving in Nauvoo, he had associated with Estel because of their family kinship.

"He was working at the temple in Seattle," Brother Neff said. "I called him there. We were chatting about something, I don't remember what it was, and I mentioned I was taking the lessons from the elders. He said, Well, don't you set a date on that until you check with me.' I said,Why, do you think you're going to come?' and he said, `I'll do it.' So he came all the way from Seattle to baptize me."

Brother Neff received a temple recommend in time to attend the dedication of the St. Louis Missouri Temple in early June of this year.

As Brother Neff was growing up in Illinois, it was common for Smith family descendants not to mention their affiliation with Mormon history, he said, because of widespread enmity toward the Church. Most of the hostility has died today, but he still encounters some antagonism from long-time residents.

"I just listen to them, and finally, I say, Have you read that Book of Mormon?' They say,Well, no.' I tell them, `You ought to read it.'

"I read it for the first time four or five years ago, with the idea of trying to find what was in there that anybody could object to. I didn't find a thing."

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