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Joseph Smith’s elder brother Hyrum was clearly well regarded by his Palmyra neighbors — at least until the Smith family’s involvement in the Book of Mormon and related matters put it beyond the pale of respectability.
For instance, they elected him a school trustee in 1828. In this capacity, he and two others administered local educational affairs, managed school funds and hired teachers. At least as early as 1828, he was also a member in good standing of Mount Moriah Masonic Lodge No. 112, signifying that he had been nominated and unanimously approved by prior lodge members as someone whose good character would reflect well upon the organization, according to Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 1981 book “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.”
A year after his election as school trustee, this respected resident became a witness to the Book of Mormon. Thereafter, his testimony and his loyalty to his younger brother were impressively consistent. For example, perhaps responding to suggestions that the experience of the Eight Witnesses was merely “spiritual” and visionary, Hyrum insisted during an 1838 speech on its literal reality (see “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”).
“He said that he had but two hands and two eyes,” Sally Parker remembered in a letter written in August 1838 and it included in “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.”. “He said he had seen the plates with his eyes and handled them with his hands.”
And, in December 1839, Hyrum himself wrote of his sufferings in Missouri, where he had been arrested in the fall of 1838 and then imprisoned in the ironically named Liberty Jail from early December to April: “I had been abused and thrust into a dungeon, and confined for months on account of my faith, and the ‘testimony of Jesus Christ.’ However I thank God that I felt a determination to die rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast. And I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life” (see “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”).
And his private statements to family were consistent, too. For example, Hyrum’s brother-in-law, Joseph Fielding, reported in an 1841 letter, also included in “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” that “My sister bears testimony that her husband has seen and handled the plates.”
Finally, in June 1844, Hyrum Smith sealed his testimony at Carthage Jail with his blood. (Significantly, the Greek word “martyr” means “witness.”) On the morning Hyrum left for Carthage, he expected to die. And, with that expectation, he turned for comfort to Ether 12:36-38 in the Book of Mormon, which states:
“And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments are clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. And now I … bid farewell unto the Gentiles; yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood.”
According to those who were in the prison with Joseph and Hyrum just before their martyrdom, “During the evening the Patriarch Hyrum Smith read and commented upon extracts from the Book of Mormon, on the imprisonments and deliverance of the servants of God for the Gospel’s sake. Joseph bore a powerful testimony to the guards of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Gospel, the administration of angels, and that the kingdom of God was again established upon the earth” (see “History of the Church,” vol. 6:600).
On the morning of their murder, June 27, 1844, “Both Joseph and Hyrum bore a faithful testimony to the Latter-day work, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” (see “History of the Church,” vol. 6:610.)
Before sunset that evening, the mob had done its work. “The testators are now dead,” wrote John Taylor, announcing their martyrdom (see Doctrine and Covenants 135:4-5), “and their testament is in force.”
Given his excellent reputation, his consistency even under great trials, his obvious sincerity and his faithfulness unto death, Hyrum Smith is a very credible witness.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.
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