Joseph Smith's family as trustworthy and hard-working

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Joseph Smith's family as trustworthy and hard-working

What documents show the work ethic of the Smiths?

It is claimed by some that Joseph Smith and his family were lazy, shiftless, and sought to make a living without labor. The claims of a "lazy" Smith family come largely from the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits, published in Mormonism Unvailed, the first anti-Mormon book.

The claim that the Smiths were lazy is belied by objective financial data showing them to be more hard-working than most of their neighbors. The attacks on their industry date from after they had become notorious for the Book of Mormon and the Church, and probably spring from religious hostility more than truth.

Were the Smiths truly lazy? Some research sought to address this question,[1] and Daniel C. Peterson summarized the results:

Working from land and tax records, farm account books and related correspondence, soil surveys, horticultural studies, surveys of historic buildings, archaeological reports, and interviews with agricultural historians and other specialists—sources not generally used by scholars of Mormon origins—Enders concludes that, on questions of testable fact, the affidavits cannot be trusted.

The Smiths' farming techniques, it seems, were virtually a textbook illustration of the best recommendations of the day, showing them to have been, by contemporary standards, intelligent, skilled, and responsible people. And they were very hard working. To create their farm, for instance, the Smiths moved many tons of rock and cut down about six thousand trees, a large percentage of which were one hundred feet or more in height and from four to six feet in diameter. Then they fenced their property, which required cutting at least six or seven thousand ten-foot rails. They did an enormous amount of work before they were able even to begin actual daily farming.

Furthermore, in order to pay for their farm, the Smiths were obliged to hire themselves out as day laborers. Throughout the surrounding area, they dug and rocked up wells and cisterns, mowed, harvested, made cider and barrels and chairs and brooms and baskets, taught school, dug for salt, worked as carpenters and domestics, built stone walls and fireplaces, flailed grain, cut and sold cordwood, carted, washed clothes, sold garden produce, painted chairs and oil-cloth coverings, butchered, dug coal, and hauled stone. And, along the way, they produced between one thousand and seven thousand pounds of maple sugar annually. "Laziness" and "indolence" are difficult to detect in the Smith family.[2]

Of four families who gave negative testimonials against the Smiths (Staffords, Stoddards, Chases, and Caprons), only one farm of then ten they owed was worth more than the Smith's farm. The Smith farm was improved to the point that it was worth as much or more per acre than 71% of the farms in the region. Even in Palmyra township, the Smith's farm was worth more than 60% of the farms.[3] Given that the Smiths' property was worth more than 90% of their critical neighbors', and more than over half of all the farms in the area, it is difficult to credit the after-the-fact claims by some neighbors in the Hurlbut affidavits that the Smiths were lazy ne'er-do-wells.

Other Smith neighbors tell a story that is more in keeping with the available financial data.

Richard Lloyd Anderson noted that:

All who claimed to know Joseph Smith in this area had contact in the townships of either Palmyra or Manchester, and the 1830 census contains about 2,000 males old enough to know the Smiths in these two localities. From that possible number, Hurlbut procured the signatures of seventy-two individuals who claimed firsthand experience with Joseph Smith. At best, Hurlbut selected one-half of one percent of the males who potentially knew anything about the Smiths. Although Howe presented these as representative, they are matched by approximately the same number in those communities known to have a favorable opinion of the Smiths in the late 1820's. Dr. Gain Robinson, uncle of the Smith family physician, gathered sixty signatures on a certificate attesting the Smiths' reliability in an attempt to prevent loss of their farm in 1825.[4]


  1. Donald L. Enders, "The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee," in Joseph Smith, The Prophet, The Man, edited by Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993), 213–25.
  2. Daniel C. Peterson and Donald L. Enders, "Can the 1834 Affidavits Attacking the Smith Family Be Trusted?," in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 286–87. off-site
  3. Enders, 220.
  4. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," Brigham Young University Studies 10 no. 3 (1970), 285. For more details, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Reliability of the Early History of Lucy and Joseph Smith," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 no. 2 (Summer 1969), 16, 19.

What contemporary witnesses are there to the work ethic of the Smiths?

Orlando Saunders

Former neighbor Orlando Saunders recalled that: "They were the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness; one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died....[The Smiths] were very good people. Young Joe (as we called him then), has worked for me, and he was a good worker; they all were. . . . He was always a gentleman when about my place."[1]

John Stafford

John Stafford, eldest son of William Stafford said that the Smiths were "poor managers," but allowed as how Joseph "would do a fair day's work if hired out to a man...."[2]

Josiah Stowell

Josiah Stowell, Jr. (a non-Mormon): “I will give you a short history of what I know about Joseph Smith, Jr. I have been intimately acquainted with him about 2 years. He then was about 20 years old or thereabout. I also went to school with him one winter. He was a fine, likely young man....”[3]

Despite charges brought against Joseph Smith for glasslooking, Josiah Stowell testified that Joseph had not defrauded or deceived him.

Two of Josiah Stowell's daughters (probably Miriam and Rhoda)[4] were called during a June 1830 court case against Joseph:

the court was detained for a time, in order that two young women (daughters to Mr. Stoal) with whom I had at times kept company; might be sent for, in order, if possible to elicit something from them which might be made a pretext against me. The young ladies arrived and were severally examined, touching my character, and conduct in general but particularly as to my behavior towards them both in public and private, when they both bore such testimony in my favor, as left my enemies without a pretext on their account.[5]

1819 trial

A year prior to the First Vision, Joseph Smith was thirteen years old. His family sued a neighboring farmer over a dispute regarding some horses they had purchased. One author explained that Joseph's use as a witness indicates that the trial judge and jury found him both trustworthy and competent to give evidence:

Under New York law, being just thirteen, Joseph's testimony about the work he had performed was admissible only after the court found him competent. His testimony proved credible and the court record indicates that ever item that he testified about was included in the damages awarded to the Smiths. Although Hurlbut [the farmer they were suing] appealed the case, no records have survived noting the final disposition of that case; perhaps it was settled out of court. The significance of this case is not limited to the fact that a New York judge found the young Joseph, just a year prior to his First Vision, to be competent and credible as a witness....

The trial was held on February 6, 1819. Twelve jurors were impaneled, all men and property owners. The Smiths called five witnesses, Hurlbut seven. Both Joseph Jr. and Hyrum were called to testify. This appears to be young Joseph's first direct interaction with the judicial process. He had turned thirteen years old a month and a half previously. New York law and local practice permitted the use of child testimony, subject to the court's discretion to determine the witness' competency. The test for competency required a determination that the witness was of 'sound mind and memory.' A New York 1803 summary of the law for justices of the peace notes that 'all persons of sound mind and memory, and who have arrived at years of discretion, except such as are legally interested, or have been rendered infamous, may be improved as witnesses.' This determination of competency rested within the discretion of the judge....

From the record it appears that Judge Spear found Joseph Jr. competent, and he indeed did testify during the trial. This is evident in a review of the List of Services that was part of the court file. Joseph Jr.'s testimony would have been required to admit those services he personally performed. His testimony was certainly combined with Hyrum's. Hyrum was born February 11, 1800, and was therefore nineteen years old at the time this case was tried.[6]


  1. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," 309; cited by Matthew Roper, "Review of The Truth about Mormonism: A Former Adherent Analyzes the LDS Faith by Weldon Langfield," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 78–92. off-site
  2. William H. Kelly, "The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon," Saints' Herald 28 (1 June 1881): 167; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:121.
  3. Letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. to John S. Fullmer, 17 February 1843.
  4. Dean C. Jessee (editor), The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Vol. 1 of 2) (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 254n252. ISBN 0875791999
  5. Joseph Smith, "History of Joseph Smith Continued," Times and Seasons 4 no. 3 (28 October 1842), 41. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) See also History of the Church, 1:90. Volume 1 link
  6. Jeffrey N. Walker, "Joseph Smith's Introduction to the Law: The 1819 Hurlbut Case," Mormon Historical Studies 11/1 (Spring 2010): 129-130.