How Much Do You Know about Joseph Smith’s Childhood?

Recalling her son Joseph’s early years, Lucy Mack Smith once noted that “nothing occurred during his early life, excepting those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existence.” Although little was recorded about Joseph Smith’s apparently unremarkable childhood, the records available do offer an interesting glimpse into the young prophet’s formative years.

  1. Joseph was born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805. Aside from two years in New Hampshire, the Smith family spent much of Joseph’s early years moving throughout Vermont in search of fertile ground. But after three consecutive years of crop failure, culminating in the harsh and lengthy frosts of 1816—the result of a volcanic eruption in current-day Indonesia—Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., decided to relocate the family further south to Palmyra, New York. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, narrated the decision to relocate and the journey to New York in her history.
  2. During the Smith family’s residency in New Hampshire from 1811 to 1813, Joseph and his siblings became ill with typhoid fever. Although all the Smith children recovered, Joseph continued to suffer complications from the disease, eventually developing osteomyelitis (a bone infection) in his left leg. After efforts to drain the infection proved unsuccessful, physicians recommended amputating Joseph’s leg, which he and his mother refused. One of the physicians, Dr. Nathan Smith of nearby Dartmouth College, had developed a new procedure to treat osteomyelitis, and Joseph’s family urged the doctor to try the new procedure on Joseph. In a story familiar to many today, Dr. Smith’s innovative (and excruciatingly painful) procedure succeeded, saving Joseph’s leg. Lucy Mack Smith recorded her recollection of the operation in her history, and Joseph’s own memory of the experience is included in an addendum to volume A-1 of his multivolume manuscript history.
  3. Although Joseph recalled that as a child he received frequent religious instruction from his parents, he had little opportunity for secular education because his parents “were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family.” Lucy Mack Smith later described Joseph as “less inclined to the perusals of books” than were her other children and “far more given to meditation and deep study.”
  4. Joseph was not the first in his family to struggle with the established churches of the time. Both Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph’s paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, maintained a belief in God while harboring significant skepticism toward organized religion. In her history, Lucy Mack Smith recorded a series of dreams her husband experienced during the eight years prior to Joseph’s 1820 vision of Deity. She reported that the first dream in particular confirmed Joseph Sr.’s belief that no religious authority at that time “knew any more concerning the Kingdom of God, than those of the world.” Lucy also described her own quest to find religion at a young age, noting the anxiety she felt about the rivalries between various sects. The religious experiences of his family members influenced young Joseph in his personal search for truth.