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Trent Toone: What I learned about the family life of Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio

There was something different and more powerful about standing where historic events occurred to learn more about the Prophet of the Restoration

In 2014, I was assigned to cover the release of the Joseph Smith Papers volume featuring documents from the historic Kirtland, Ohio, era of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Among the interesting documents discussed for that article were the Feb. 27, 1833, revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants section 89 — also known as the “Word of Wisdom” — and minutes of the School of the Prophets (March 18, 1833), which recorded that “many of the brethren saw a heavenly vision of the Saviour and concourses of angels.”

Church history and the Joseph Smith Papers continued to be one of my assignments for most of the next decade, including the publication of the 27th and final Joseph Smith Papers volume on June 27.

On many occasions during those years, editors, historians and Church leaders articulated new insights of the life and character of Joseph Smith gained from a deep study of his documents, often followed by their testimonies.

As marvelous as the books, documents and those experiences were, there was something different and more powerful about standing in the sacred places where historic events occurred and learning more about Joseph as the Prophet of the Restoration. It became more real to me.

That opportunity came as Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated the Joseph and Emma Smith Home in Kirtland on Aug. 26.

Elder David A. Bednar speaks during the dedication of the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio.
Elder David A. Bednar of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during the dedication of the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio, on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Kirtland, Ohio, era was a “remarkable revelatory season,” Elder Bednar said, and there is much to see and learn. But a tour of the new home will give visitors a new glimpse into the lives and character of Joseph and Emma Smith.

The couple moved into the home, which is a short walk down the hill from the Kirtland Temple, in late 1833 and lived there until fleeing Kirtland in 1838. It was the place they lived together for the longest period of time before the Prophet’s death.

Guests will gain a stronger sense of Joseph and Emma as parents and people, said Benjamin Pykles, director of the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division.

“We focus so much on his role as a prophet, as we should. But there was this other part of his life that we don’t focus on as often,” Pykles said. “In this home, you get a real sense of what it must have been like for him — a man in his late 20s who had seen God and Jesus Christ, who had been commanded to restore His Church on the earth, who had been given the restored priesthood — but also with a young wife, three small children, needing to care for his family as well as this young Church.”

Elder David A. Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar look over the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio.
Elder David A. Bednar of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, look over the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Inside the modest home, people might wonder how the Smith family entertained a constant stream of visitors, sometimes sacrificing their own comfort and privacy to accommodate guests, said Mark Staker, a master curator for the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division.

“People, as soon as they arrive to Kirtland, often come to visit Joseph. He would invite them to stay in his home until they got their own place. So often, Joseph and Emma are sleeping on the floor,” Staker said. “As you go into the home, you say, ‘Where could they have slept? How could they have fit everybody?’”

There were miracles in the home, said Aaron West, a historian and writer in the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division. In 1835, Joseph’s mother Lucy Mack Smith fell down the stairs and hit her head. A few days later she was blind. She “called upon the elders and requested them to pray to the Lord, that I might ... be able to see so as to read without wearing spectacles; they did so, and when they took their hands off my head, I read two lines in the Book of Mormon; and although I am now 70 years old, I have never worn glasses since.”

Staker said Emma was “the heart of the home,” a place where she cared for her young family and ministered to others. While living in the home in 1837, the story is told in “Saints, Vol. 1” of Emma giving a ham and 40 pounds of flour to the destitute family of Jonathan and Caroline Crosby during a time of economic depression and financial panic.

Emma also oversaw the compilation of the Church’s first hymnal in the home. A choir of young adults performed two of those original hymns as part of the dedicatory service: “How Firm a Foundation” and “The Spirit of God.”

A desk in the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.
A desk in the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Of all that I learned, one story of Joseph at home truly spoke to my heart as a husband and father. It comes from a brief journal entry in December 1835.

Joseph wrote: “At home all this day and enjoyed myself with my family, it being Christmas Day, the only time I have had this privilege, so satisfactorily, for a long time.”

What I took home was a greater appreciation and understanding of historic events in Kirtland and an increased love for the family of the Prophet of the Restoration.

My feelings are best summarized with Elder Bednar’s words from the dedicatory prayer: “Our hearts are filled to the brim with thanksgiving as we remember, reflect on and commemorate the important revelatory events that occurred in this city and in this place in the earliest days of the restoration of Thy Son’s gospel and Church,” he said. “I dedicate this house as a place of remembrance, a place of inspiration, a place of appreciation, a place of knowledge, a place of seeking and learning and a place of reverence.”

— Trent Toone is a reporter for the Church News.

The sun rises on the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023.
The sun rises on the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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