‘My dear sister’: Joseph F. Smith’s letters to Martha Ann Smith subject of lecture

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

Carole Call King may not have realized the treasure she inherited when her father, Anson B. Call Jr. died in 1993, but some time later, when she opened a box bearing the words “letters to mother,” she found a historian’s bonanza.

Inside, were “nearly a hundred original letters written by Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the Church,” said Richard Neitzel Holzapfel Oct. 9 in the latest offering of the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series sponsored by the Church History Library and held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

“The letters had been addressed and sent to his younger sister, Martha Ann Smith Harris,” said Brother Holzapfel, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

He said he contacted her, and “she gave me permission to copy, transcribe and publish this important collection of personal texts.”

Additional letters written by President Smith to his sister were located at the Church History Library, and the collection now consists of 236 letters, 188 written by Joseph F. Smith to Martha Ann, and 48 that she wrote to him.

Brother Holzapfel sketched the early life of President Smith, who was born in Missouri during the period mobs were persecuting Church members. His father was Hyrum Smith, the patriarch to the Church and the brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“His father had been incarcerated in a jail in Liberty, Missouri [along with the Prophet and others], and apparently that was the first time he saw his father. Of course, as a newborn infant, he wouldn’t have remembered that.”

Later, Joseph and Hyrum were martyred at Carthage Jail in 1844. Hyrum’s widow, Mary Fielding Smith, made her way west to settle with the Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley, where she would die in 1852.

“Martha Ann and Joseph F. would become orphans at a very young tender age,” Brother Holzapfel said.

Troubled and, by his own account, “out of control” due to the difficult circumstances, Joseph F. was expelled from school after he beat up a teacher who was about to inflict corporal punishment on Martha.

Church leaders solved the problem of what to do with this young man by sending him on a mission at the age of 15 to the Sandwich Islands, today known as the Hawaiian Islands. Martha was left at home without the support of her older brother.

Beginning in 1854, he began a habit of writing letters to her that would last six decades.

Brother Holzapfel showed an image of the first letter he wrote to her, including a lock of hair he enclosed in the envelope.

“By the time he comes back to Utah, five years later, he has changed, and now he has a direction in life,” Brother Holzapfel said. “He will continue writing his sister nearly through his life, until 1916.” He died in 1918.

What aided the preservation of the letters was a new product and process introduced in the late 19th century called a letterpress book. A newly written or typed letter would be pressed into a book with thin paper that would take a reverse impression of the text from the letter, which could then be read by reading the letter from the opposite side of the paper.

“As a result of these two combinations — the original letters being preserved by Martha Ann’s descendants and the letterpress books — we now have access to a large series of letters,” Brother Holzapfel explained.

The letters “are records containing cultural, historical, linguistic and social information,” he said. They are “full of shared life experiences” and include “references to historically significant events” such as the Utah War in 1857.

The letters become more sporadic between 1900 and 1916, evidently due to the coming of other communications means: the telegraph and the telephone, Brother Holzapfel said, and the fact that travel improved between Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, where Martha lived.

A lifelong commitment and loyalty to each other are reflected in the letters, he said.

“Throughout the letters, Joseph F. Smith is acutely aware that his life had often provided him opportunities that his sister did not enjoy and could not even dream of. … As they grew older his feelings became even more tender-hearted as he considered Martha Ann’s deteriorating health and seemingly never-ending financial challenges. Despite Joseph F. Smith’s own pressing financial concerns as his family grew in size, he nevertheless was mindful of Martha Ann’s situation.”

The collection stands to be a boon to historical research in a way that only letters can do — particularly when both sides of the correspondence are available.

“The Joseph F. Smith and Martha Ann Harris letter collection provides a rare look into the personal lives of a young man and a young woman whose circumstances prematurely thrust them into great responsibilities of adulthood,” Brother Holzapfel said. “It highlights Joseph F. Smith’s experiences as a young missionary, maturing Church leader, father of a large family living in multiple households [due to plural marriage]. The collection also provides insights into Martha’s experience, growing up and growing old in two closely connected settlements and rural mountains in the west where daily toil and survival were often the foremost concerns.”

He remarked that the letter collection “informs the modern reader much about a period of transition in LDS history, as both Joseph F. and Martha Ann not only witnessed but participated in events that brought the exiled Latter-day Saints to the Great Basin seeking refuge from persecution to a period in the early decades of the 20th century, when the Church was becoming a somewhat respected American religious institution. There are many additional insights to be gained from a careful analysis of these letters. Certainly future studies on a variety of topics will benefit from this remarkably rich collection of personal letters now made available to a larger audience than would have been originally intended when they were first written as personal, private conversations between a brother and a sister.”

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