Encounter with Joseph Smith highlighted in new book, ‘Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family’

The month before Joseph Smith was assassinated, he gave a personal tour of Nauvoo, Illinois, to two prominent men of the time: Charles Francis Adams and Josiah Quincy Jr.

“They were a prominent pair,” explained Sara Georgini in her new book, “Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family” (Oxford, 2019), which explores the religious lives of the family of John Adams, Founding Father and second president of the United States, through several generations spanning 300 years as the family members were involved in several pivotal moments in the nation’s history. “Charles was serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and his fourth cousin Josiah presided over Boston’s city council.”

Sara Georgini is series editor for The Papers of John Adams and author of “Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
 

“Charles Francis Adams, a politician and man of letters, embraced a series of what he called ‘journeyings’ to explore other religious cultures,” Georgini wrote in an email interview with the blog, From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring.

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“In the spring of 1844, he and fourth cousin Josiah Quincy went on a western tour that stopped at Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo,” said Georgini.

The Unitarian men were skeptical of anyone professing to be a prophet and initially saw Joseph Smith as more of an infamous celebrity than someone to be taken seriously.

When Adams and Quincy first encountered Joseph Smith, they knew only a few highlights from his life.

“Charles was eager to meet ‘the celebrated Joe Smith,’ who had swiftly consolidated both sacred and secular power in a fertile region of the expanding nation,” said Georgini. “Charles had heard of the Mormon leader’s visions and read of Smith’s efforts to set down those revelations in the Book of Mormon. Charles had some idea of the formalization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The degree to which Joseph Smith was politically involved came as a surprise to the visitors.

“What Charles did not realize, until he sat down with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, was how adroitly the Mormon tavern keeper had built up local power,” said Georgini.

“He was more interested in Smith’s half-finished stone temple, his total control of the Nauvoo courts, and his use of communal tithing to fund Mormonism’s national structure and growth,” wrote Georgini in “Household Gods.”

The Nauvoo Mansion House was not a mansion in today’s sense of the word, but rather an upscale hotel or tavern — operated, in this case, by Joseph Smith.

“At first glance, (Charles Adams) counted Joseph Smith in that number, just another civil but unkempt host who hustled him in and out of a maze of occupied rooms in search of a clean, spare bed,” explained Georgini in “Household Gods.”

After sharing a breakfast, Joseph Smith showed the visiting easterners relics associated with the Pearl of Great Price and expounded on the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“He led them down to the private chamber to visit his mother, Lucy Mack Smith,” said Georgini. “There, the Mormon leader unwrapped four Egyptian mummies and several rolls of yellow papyri.”

“Next,” continued Georgini, “’Joe’ explained in detail the related holy manuscripts that he had transcribed. ‘Of course, we were too polite to prove the negative,’ Charles wrote in his diary, ‘against a man fortified by revelation.’”

The prophet also gave Adams a Book of Mormon belonging to his wife, Emma Smith, which was signed by both himself and the recipient. According to a Church News article about the book, the notation written by Adams reads: “The above is the autograph of the chief of the Mormons who gave me this book at Nauvoo on the 15th of May 1844.”

The personal attention given to Adams and Quincy failed to achieve the results Joseph Smith likely desired.

“Despite Smith’s best efforts at instruction, Charles never grasped the intricacies of Mormon belief and he resented paying a quarter to see the (Egyptian) cache,” said Georgini.

Adams’ inaccurate conclusion at the end of the May 1844 meeting was that “Smith’s ‘theological system is very nearly Christian Unitarianism — with the addition of the power of baptism by the priests of adults to remit sin, and of the hierarchy of which Smith is the chief by divine appointment,” said Georgini, quoting Charles’s diary.

Notwithstanding the ups and downs of the encounter, Adams reflected positively upon the trip and the opportunity to meet with Joseph Smith.

“Adams mulled the Mormon lesson of his high-speed tour through western Christianity,” said Georgini. “’On the whole I was glad I had been,’ he wrote.”

This article was originally published in the Deseret News.

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