Alvin Smith (brother of Joseph Smith)
February 11, 1798|
|Died||November 19, 1823
Palmyra, New York
|Cause of death||mercury poisoning from calomel|
|Resting place||General John Swift Memorial Cemetery
|Parents||Joseph Smith Sr.
Lucy Mack Smith
Alvin Smith (February 11, 1798 – November 19, 1823) was the eldest brother of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Alvin took a leading role in helping the Smith family work toward paying their debts and building their home. His death at age 25 resulted in his younger brother Joseph taking more of a leading role in family affairs. A vision claimed by Joseph Smith is said to have included Alvin's presence and played a significant role in the establishment of the Mormon doctrines of redemption of those who die without a knowledge of the gospel and baptism of the dead.
Alvin Smith was born in 1798, the first surviving child of Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. During his youth, Smith worked as a carpenter’s helper to assist the Smith family in saving up sufficient funds to make a down payment on a farm in Manchester Township, south of Palmyra, New York. Smith also assisted his father in clearing timber, planting wheat and tapping maple trees for the purpose of making maple sugar. A neighbor, Orlando Saunders, stated that the members of the Smith family “have all worked for me many a day; they were very good people. Young Joe (as we called him then) has worked for me, and he was a good worker; they all were.” In the early 1820s, Smith was involved with his father and brothers in a number of treasure digging excavations in the Palmyra–Manchester area.
On November 19, 1823, at age 25, Smith died of mercury poisoning from calomel, which had been administered to cure a case of “bilious colic.” Smith was a believer in his brother Joseph's claim that Joseph was to recover an ancient record from a nearby hill. His death occurred two months after Joseph’s first visit to the hill from which he was eventually said to have recovered the golden plates that would later be claimed as the source for the Book of Mormon. According to a history written by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, as Smith lay dying he called each member of his family to his bedside to give them counsel. To his brother Hyrum, Smith said, "I have done all I could to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to go on and finish the house." He urged his brother Joseph to fulfill all of the requirements to obtain the record. Smith's death had a significant effect on the family, resulting in Joseph taking more of a leadership role.
Alvin's funeral was held at the Presbyterian church. According to an 1893 account by his brother William, "Rev. Stockton had preached my brother's funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member". William cites this as a reason that Joseph Sr. would not join the Presbyterians.
Significance in the Mormon doctrine of redemption of the dead
Smith figured prominently in the establishment of the Mormon doctrine of the redemption of the dead and the later establishment of the practice of baptism for the dead. On January 21, 1836, after the completion of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith claimed to have had a vision of the celestial kingdom. Smith stated that he saw his brother Alvin in this vision, and was surprised at his presence since he had died before the establishment of the church and its associated doctrines. Joseph Smith stated that he then received a revelation concerning the salvation of those who die without hearing the gospel and their ability to receive the same opportunities as those who had the opportunity to hear it on earth.
Post-death rumors and events
Rumors of desecration of Smith's body
Biographer Fawn M. Brodie wrote that the Smith family "heard a rumor that Alvin's body had been exhumed and dissected. Fearing it to be true, the elder Smith uncovered the grave on September 25, 1824 and inspected the corpse." Following the exhumation, Joseph Smith, Sr. printed the following in the local newspaper on September 29, 1824:
TO THE PUBLIC: Whereas reports have been industriously put in circulation that my son Alvin had been removed from the place of his interment and dissected; which reports ... are peculiarly calculated to harrow up the mind of a parent and deeply wound the feelings of relations ... therefore, for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I, with some of my neighbors this morning, repaired to the grave, and removing the earth, found the body, which had not been disturbed. This method is taken for the purpose of satisfying the minds of those who may have heard the report, and of informing those who have put it in circulation, that it is earnestly requested they would desist therefrom.
Historian D. Michael Quinn, in his book Early Mormonism and the Magical World View, suggests that the newspaper notice published by Smith Sr. is evidence that the "guardian," "spirit" or "angel" commanded Joseph to bring a piece of Alvin's body to the hiding place of the golden plates as a requirement for seeing them. Quinn argues that when Smith did not do this, he was unable to see the plates for a second time and had to wait another year. Additionally, Quinn suggests that this information was obscured in official church history because it implies Smith's participation in necromancy. The requirement to bring a portion of Alvin's body to view the plates originated with the forged salamander letter, which was believed to be authentic at the time that Quinn wrote Early Mormonism and the Magical World View.
Subject of the "salamander letter" forgery
The story of the exhumation of Smith's remains gained new life with the "discovery" of Mark Hofmann's forged salamander letter. Hofmann admitted that he used Joseph Smith, Sr.'s letter and the affidavit of Willard Chase (Mormonism Unvailed, 1834), to create the implication that Joseph needed to take part of Alvin's body to the hill Cumorah. Chase states in his affidavit that the angel told Smith to bring his brother Alvin with him to obtain the plates. By the time of the second visit to the hill, Alvin had been dead for several months. Although Chase’s statement makes no further comment regarding Alvin, Hofmann’s forgery adds a claim that Smith said to the angel, “he is dead shall I bring what remains but the spirit is gone.” The presence of this statement in the salamander letter reintroduced speculation regarding the exhumation of Alvin’s body for the purpose of satisfying the requirements for obtaining the plates. The salamander letter also suggests that Smith's wife Emma or his brother Hyrum were dressed in Alvin's clothes when the plates were delivered to Smith.
During the period of time that the salamander letter was believed to be authentic, the information contained within it was used in a number of publications and films related to Mormonism. One such film, The God Makers II, suggests that Joseph Smith was required to dig up Alvin’s body and bring a part of it with him to the hill Cumorah in order to obtain the gold plates. The only known source of such a requirement is the salamander letter, which is now known to be a forgery.
References in popular culture
- Allen & Leonard 1992, p. 21
- Allen & Leonard 1992, p. 25
- Saints' Herald 28 (1881): 165.
- Dan Vogel, "The Location of Joseph Smith's Early Treasure Quests", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27(3) (1994): 197–231.
- Allen & Leonard 1992, p. 25
- Vogel, Dan (ed). Early Mormon Documents (Vol. 1). pp. 284–285. Regarding this debt, Smith's mother Lucy stated, "In the spring  after we moved onto the farm we commenced making Mapel [Maple] sugar ... we then began to make preparations for building a house as the Land Agent of whom we purchased our farm was dead and we could not make the last payment."
- One biographer of Joseph Smith speculates that Alvin was deliberately poisoned. As evidence of this claim, he refers to a Book of Mormon story relating to Amalikiah’s poisoning of Lehonti in order to become the king of the Lamanites (Alma 47:18) and suggests that Smith wrote this to represent the death of his older brother Alvin. See Vogel's Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet.
- Smith, Lucy, Biographical Sketches, p. 88.
- Smith 1954, p. 87 "I am now going to die, the distress which I suffer, and the feelings that I have, tell me my time is very short. I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you."
- "The William Smith Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision".
- Doctrine and Covenants 137:5: “I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept."
- Allen & Leonard 1992, p. 109
- Brodie 1971, p. 28
- Wayne Sentinel, September 29, 1824.
- Quinn 1998, pp. 158–59
- In his book Mormonism and the Magic World View (p. 330, n. 14), Quinn stated that the salamander letter's content was "consistent with everything I had found and was learning about pre-1830 beliefs in folk magic and the occult."
- Rough Stone Rolling page 54, Richard Bushman.
- Anderson 1987
- Church News, 28 April 1985.[full citation needed]
- The film displays a picture of a skeleton (not Alvin’s) as the alleged exhumation of the body is being discussed.
- Tanner & Tanner 1993, p. 7
- Allen, James B; Leonard, Glen M (1992), The Story of the Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, ISBN 0-87579-565-X.
- Anderson, Richard Lloyd (August 1987), "The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction", Ensign, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 58, retrieved 2007-02-20.
- Brodie, Fawn M. (1971), No Man Knows My History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 0679730540.
- Smith, Lucy Mack (1954), Preston Nibley, ed., History of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
- Tanner, Jerald; Tanner, Sandra (1993), Problems in the Godmakers II, Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Lighthouse Ministry.
- Quinn, D. Michael (1998), Mormonism and the Magic World View, Salt Lake City: Signature Books.