Encyclopedia of Mormonism
by Bruce A. Van Orden
Among early Mormon leaders, Hyrum Smith (1800-1844) stands next to his brother the Prophet Joseph Smith in the esteem of many Latter-day Saints. Although nearly six years older than his prophet brother, Hyrum became Joseph’s closest adviser and confidant. When he died a martyr with Joseph on June 27, 1844, Hyrum was Associate President of the Church, second in authority.
Hyrum was born to Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith on February 9, 1800, in Tunbridge, Vermont. During his childhood, the family moved to eight different locations near the Connecticut River while the father struggled as a farmer, storekeeper, and tenant farmer. At age eleven, Hyrum was sent to Moor’s Charity School, associated with Dartmouth College. About two years later, a severe epidemic of typhoid fever broke out and Hyrum returned home ill to find several siblings ill as well. Joseph, Jr., was stricken with the dreaded disease, which developed into osteomyelitis in his left leg. Hyrum, who was already recognized for his tender and compassionate nature, became young Joseph’s nurse, developing an enduring bond between the brothers.
After the family moved to New York, Hyrum and the other Smith brothers helped the family finances by hiring out as farm laborers, coopers, and masons, in addition to clearing their own land for farming. On November 2, 1826, Hyrum married Jerusha Barden (1805-1837).
After Joseph received the plates and started translating the Book of Mormon, Hyrum journeyed to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1828, and again in May 1829, to learn how the work was progressing. Joseph sought a revelation at Hyrum’s earnest request in which Hyrum learned that after he had prepared himself by studying the Bible and the teachings soon to come forth in the Book of Mormon, he was called to “assist to bring forth my work” and to preach “nothing but repentance” (D&C 11:9, 22). Early in June 1829, Hyrum was baptized in Seneca Lake, New York. Toward the end of June, he became one of the Eight Witnesses, examining and “hefting” the plates of gold (see Book of Mormon Witnesses). He served as Oliver Cowdery’s bodyguard as he delivered a few pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript each day to the printer in Palmyra.
When the Church was organized under New York state law on April 6, 1830, Hyrum was the oldest at age thirty of the six men who signed their names as charter members (see Organization of the Church, 1830). He was told, “Thy duty is unto the church forever” (D&C 23:3), a duty he faithfully fulfilled. Hyrum became one of the first preachers of the Church in surrounding communities in New York, baptizing some of the earliest converts. When a substantial branch of the Church was formed in Colesville, Hyrum was called as its presiding officer.
In 1831 Hyrum Smith moved, along with most Church members, to Kirtland, Ohio. Between 1831 and 1833 he served three proselytizing missions to Missouri and Ohio. In 1834 he helped recruit members for Zion’s Camp and served as Joseph Smith’s chief aide in that military March. Upon his return, Hyrum became foreman of the stone quarry for the rising Kirtland Temple. Having proved his ability and faithfulness, Hyrum was ordained an Assistant President of the Church in December 1834. His responsibilities were further increased in November 1837 when he became Second Counselor in the First Presidency with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, and with Oliver Cowdery as Associate President.
In Missouri in October 1838, when the Latter-day Saints clashed with their neighbors, Joseph, Hyrum, Sidney Rigdon, and several other Mormons were arrested on false charges of treason, murder, arson, and stealing. They were taken to Richmond, Missouri, for trial, while the rest of the Saints were driven from the state (see Missouri Conflict). After a preliminary hearing in November, Joseph and Hyrum were bound over for trial. For nearly five more months, they and three others shared a jail cell in the village of Liberty, Missouri, while state officials deliberated on their fate. On April 16, 1839, during a second change of venue, they were allowed to escape.
In the Saints’ new home along the Mississippi in Illinois, Hyrum Smith was ordained to two prominent positions in the Church: Presiding patriarch, in place of his deceased father (D&C 124:91), and Associate President of the Church, in place of Oliver Cowdery (D&C 124:95). When Joseph Smith traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek redress from federal officials for the Saints’ Missouri grievances, Hyrum served as Acting President of the Church in Nauvoo. Hyrum pronounced hundreds of patriarchal blessings upon the members of the Church, including numerous converts arriving from Britain. He was a founding leader of the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. In 1842 he clarified that “hot drinks” in the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89:9) referred to tea and coffee (T&S 3:800), a point that had been controversial. He was also the chairman of the Nauvoo Temple Building Committee and stood close to the Prophet Joseph, acting “in concert” with him in all leadership capacities (D&C 124:95).
Latter-day Saints revered their “Prophet Joseph” and “Patriarch Hyrum”; enemies of the Church despised both them and the power they represented. As events led toward Joseph’s assassination in Carthage, Hyrum refused to leave him, even though Joseph requested that Hyrum flee with his family to Cincinnati. He went with Joseph to Carthage in June 1844 and was charged with riot and treason, along with his brother. When a mob stormed the jail where they were confined awaiting trial, Hyrum, standing to hold the door shut, was the first to die from gunfire through the door. Joseph and Hyrum became dual martyrs. Like many of “the Lord’s anointed in ancient times,” they sealed their works with their own blood; “in life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated” (D&C 135:3;see also Carthage Jail; Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith).
Hyrum Smith is credited in Church history with being an astute organizer who gave ecclesiastical leadership to the emerging Church. As a person, he was considered a man without guile. One scripture concerning him reads, “I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart” (D&C 124:15). With a love for Hyrum that was stronger than death, Joseph once described him as possessing “the mildness of a lamb, and the integrity of a Job, and in short, the meekness and humility of Christ” (HC 2:338). When John Taylor looked upon Hyrum’s slain body, he reflected, “He was a great and good man, and my soul was cemented to his. If ever there was an exemplary, honest, and virtuous man, an embodiment of all that is noble in the human form, Hyrum Smith was its representative” (HC7:107).
Hyrum and his first wife, Jerusha, had four daughters and two sons. After Jerusha’s death, he married Mary Fielding in 1837, and she bore him a son and a daughter. When Joseph Smith introduced plural marriage to him, Hyrum at first opposed the idea, but when converted to the principle, he became one of its staunchest advocates.
Many of Hyrum’s descendants have played significant roles in Church history. A son, Joseph F. Smith, became the sixth President of the Church, and a grandson, Joseph Fielding Smith, became the tenth President. Four of the six Patriarchs to the Church since 1845 have been descendants of Hyrum Smith.
Corbett, Pearson H. Hyrum Smith, Patriarch. Salt Lake City, 1963.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. “The Martyrs.” IE 47 (June 1944):364-65, 414-15.
BRUCE A. VAN ORDEN