Spencer McBride: By this point in the podcast series, the importance of the martyrdom to the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is apparent. But for some men and women, there is an extra layer of importance to that event. For descendants of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the martyrdom is also part of their family history.
Such is the case for M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Ballard was called as a general authority of the church in 1976 and, in 1985, was ordained an apostle. Since 2018 he has served as acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve.
When we met and conversed in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, President Ballard spoke of Joseph and Hyrum Smith both as prominent figures in the history of the church that he now helps to lead and as ancestors who left a legacy of faith for their descendants. He shared his reflections on that history along with his faith in Jesus Christ and his testimony of the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. In this episode you will hear extensive portions of that conversation.
This is Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer McBride: Episode 7, “A Conversation with M. Russell Ballard.”
Spencer McBride: My first question for President Ballard was about how he is related to Hyrum Smith.
President M. Russell Ballard: My mother is Geraldine Smith, and her father was Hyrum Mack Smith, and his father was Joseph F. Smith. And Joseph F. Smith was Hyrum’s youngest son. So, my great-great-grandfather was Hyrum.
Spencer McBride: President Ballard then spoke about the importance of the history of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, including their tragic deaths, from his perspective as both a Latter-day Saint and as one of Hyrum’s descendants. Why does this history matter so much to him?
President M. Russell Ballard: Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith was prepared before the foundations of the creation of the earth to lead this dispensation. So, when we talk about Joseph Smith, we’re talking about a prophet of God who was raised up in this the dispensation of the fulness of times and to lead the restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which he did magnificently. And his older brother Hyrum, five years older, was at his side most all of the time. There was a very tender moment in their lives. They’d crossed the Mississippi River getting away from the mob, and they stood on the other side. Joseph turned to Hyrum and said, “Hyrum, [you’re] the oldest. What [should] we do?” And Hyrum said, “Let us go back.” And Joseph of course, at that occasion, said, If we do, they’ll kill us. And Hyrum’s response was, “Let us go back.” So, those two brothers went back across the river, and the story of the capture and the Carthage jail, and ultimately the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith is history—great history, but family history for me.
Spencer McBride: President Ballard told me that he has been able to visit Carthage jail multiple times. I asked him if any of those particular visits stand out in his memory?
President M. Russell Ballard: Oh, absolutely! Just approaching the jail and contemplating and walking up the stairs to the room where Joseph and Hyrum were, was very emotional for me. And then to walk into the room, and it used to be, years ago, they had put some plastic over a blood stain in the doorway, and the hosts at the center used to say that that was the blood of Hyrum Smith. I’m glad that they don’t do that right now. But when I went the first time, that was a very sobering experience. I read recently where Joseph F. Smith went there, and it was the first time that he had been in the Carthage jail. He went over and, the report was, he sat down on the bed in the room where Joseph and Hyrum were martyred. They said he put his head into his hands, over his eyes, and the tears streamed through his fingers and down to the floor. That was quite a tender moment in our church history. But when we think about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, we’re thinking, as Brigham Young said, that the Smith family had been in the eye of the Lord from the foundations of the earth, and those two brothers together brought about the restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Spencer McBride: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make regular and concerted efforts to study and reflect upon the history of the church, including the church’s early history. That early history includes the martyrdom, which, as a story that includes a violent mob attack, can be difficult for some to contemplate as a story for spiritual edification. I asked President Ballard what he thinks are some of the most important points that he hopes church members take away from their study of this particular event in church history.
President M. Russell Ballard: I think, number one, they would want to think what a wonderful thing it was that our Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ raised up a prophet to introduce and bring to pass a new dispensation and the fulness of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ, including the priesthood and the authority—the power to act in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ—were once again upon the earth because God had called and sent Joseph forward. I think Joseph was able to do all the marvelous things he did in some ways because he had Hyrum, and they were almost inseparable. And so, those two brothers stood side by side. I think they’re both prophets. Hyrum was actually charged by his older brother, who passed away early, to watch over and take care of Joseph. So, it wasn’t because he was asked to do that, but there was just a bonding between those two men, and they went through a lot. They went through a lot of tough times together, the two of them, and I think it’s commendable that Hyrum wouldn’t leave Joseph because Joseph could have gone to Carthage alone, and I don’t think that the mobs would have tried to trace down and take the life of Hyrum. But Hyrum chose to stay with his little brother and help him, and this is a great witness of the truth of the restoration of the gospel—that those two prophets spilled their blood on behalf of the human family in order to have the restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ for us to have and enjoy and understand and live.
Spencer McBride: There was palpable emotion in the room as President Ballard spoke of Hyrum Smith’s dedication to his younger brother Joseph. He has spoken about this brotherly bond before. He reflected on the bond between Joseph and Hyrum and the way that they supported each other in their ministries. He stated that he knew of no greater missionary companionship that has served in this dispensation.
I told President Ballard that I had never thought of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in terms of being like missionary companions to one another, and I asked him if he would explain his thoughts on that comparison.
President M. Russell Ballard: Well, they carried the gospel. They taught the gospel. They brought it to the world. They traveled together. They suffered together. They went through things for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ that are, for me, difficult to comprehend, and yet they were bound together in love so much so that they never really went very far anywhere without each other during those last few years of their lives. So, I think when the members of the church really think about Joseph Smith, I would hope they would also think about Hyrum Smith because I believe, in a lot of ways, Joseph was able to be Joseph because he had Hyrum at his side to support him and sustain him and be with him through much of the trauma of Joseph’s life, including being with him in Carthage jail.
Spencer McBride: Our conversation turned to the church’s efforts to preserve and share the history of Joseph Smith. We talked about some of the church’s historic sites that we had each visited and the experiences that people have in such historic settings. President Ballard shared an experience he had at the Sacred Grove in New York, the site of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and he reflected on how, for him, it added a new layer of spiritual significance to that place. He visited the site with Sidney Jay Nebeker, one of the men with whom he had served a mission in Great Britain.
President M. Russell Ballard: When my mission concluded in England—and now we’re talking about 1950, that’s a long time ago—my companion and I, his mother picked us up at New York and we went to Palmyra. And the two of us went into the Sacred Grove, and we were there alone. And I said to my companion, “Let’s kneel down and thank the Lord for the blessing of being able to serve him.” And it was a cloudy day. And it was interesting, as he prayed first and then I prayed, and all of a sudden, the heavens opened and the sun hit us, and then they closed right quick, and I turned to Sid and I said, “Sid, we just had an answer to our prayers.” That was an unusual experience for me. So, the Sacred Grove is sacred because Joseph was there, but in my life, it was sacred because I was there.
Spencer McBride: President Ballard also shared his thoughts on the efforts to publish all of Joseph Smith’s surviving documents in the Joseph Smith Papers. He commented on why the project and all the research that it entails is important to the church—and to the world.
President M. Russell Ballard: Well, I think it’s a wonderful tribute to the church that we are anxious and have been more anxious, I think, and more transparent in the last maybe thirty years, and even accelerating it, to know everything we can know about Joseph Smith the prophet and our history. And there’s some in our history that’s very interesting, and some of it’s very motivating and very exciting. And I think that the world should appreciate that we are wanting to declare to the world and share with the world as much as we can about Joseph Smith. That’s why the Joseph Smith Papers and all of this research—my goodness! The research has gone on and studying every little thing that we possibly can find about him. I imagine he must smile on the other side of the veil, if he looks down and sees everything that we’re doing to try to find out everything he did, almost to when he went to bed and what time he got up and what he had for breakfast. And why do we do it? Because he’s a prophet of God and he restored the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we should honor him, and we should thank our Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ that they gave to us Joseph Smith to restore the fulness of the gospel that gives us light and knowledge and tells us how we should live our lives, so someday we can go back and be with Him and our Heavenly Father in the eternal worlds.
Spencer McBride: My final question for President Ballard was this: How has Joseph Smith’s testimony of Jesus Christ influenced your own faith?
President M. Russell Ballard: My own personal testimony comes from my study and my study of the Lord Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father and the great plan of salvation and the reality that we have what we have today because we have Joseph Smith, the prophet of the dispensation of the fulness of times. I love the prophet Joseph Smith, and I love his brother Hyrum and the whole Smith family and Lucy Mack and their remarkable father. We don’t think much about Joseph Sr., but just think what it would have been, when Joseph went and told his father what had happened, if his father said, oh Joseph, you’ve been out in the sun too long. You go take a nap. That wasn’t what happened. He believed him. When he went to his mother, she believed him. And so, I think his father and mother were prepared, and I guess Brigham Young was right, that the Smith family had been in the eyes of the Lord from the foundations of the creation of the world.
I think it’s a wonderful blessing for anyone, wherever they are in the world, to become acquainted with the life and ministry of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. And if they are willing to listen, if they’re willing to read, if they’re willing to study, what Joseph and Hyrum Smith did in bringing to the world once again the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they will come to a great sense of affection and love and appreciation for these mighty prophets. And so, how blessed we are to know what we know about Joseph Smith, the prophet of this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Spencer McBride: I found it enlightening to speak with M. Russell Ballard about the history of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and about the martyrdom. As you heard, the story is important to him. He spoke of the martyrdom from his perspective as an apostle and as a descendant of Hyrum. It’s simultaneously part of the history of his family and of the history of his faith.
Another church leader shared with me his insights on the martyrdom and its aftermath from his ecclesiastical perspective as well as from his view as a scholar who, prior to his call as a general authority of the church, researched and published on the legal history of Joseph Smith. That church leader is Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Oaks was joined in the recording studio by Richard E. Turley Jr., a historian with decades of experience studying the life of Joseph Smith. You will hear their thoughts and reflections in the next and final episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.
Spencer McBride: If you are interested in learning more about the history discussed in this episode or in exploring the papers of Joseph Smith, visit josephsmithpapers.org.