Review: Children of Joseph

Children of Joseph is a 35-minute DVD produced by the Joseph Smith and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society.  It was created in 2011 by many of the same team from Emma Smith: My Story, and is available through Netflix and Amazon, as well as for purchase through the Historical Society’s website.

When Joseph Smith Jr. was killed in 1844, he left behind five children and his first wife Emma who was pregnant with the sixth.  In the difficult times following The Prophet’s death, Brigham Young led a large group of Saints to the West, although Emma and the children stayed behind in Nauvoo, Illinois.  Over the next 150 years, relatively few of Joseph Smith’s posterity became involved with the Utah branch of Mormonism, although today over a hundred of his descendants (many of whom were previously unaware that they were related to Joseph Smith before being contacted by LDS missionaries or family history researchers) have become members.

Let’s be clear:  Children of Joseph is NOT a “documentary” in the true sense of the word.  You will learn surprisingly little about Joseph Smith’s children from this DVD, other than their names and how old they were when their father died.  Biographical details about their adult lives are skipped over, and the leadership debates and personal conflicts that divided the Saints following Joseph’s death are talked about only in vague expressions without detail.  Viewers curious about what happened to Joseph Smith’s children or post-martyrdom events in the Church will learn more in five minutes perusing Wikipedia than from the historians in this DVD.

Rather, Children of Joseph acts as more of a brief tribute to Joseph and Emma Smith themselves, and a feel-good piece for Utah Mormons to learn about missionary efforts among their posterity today.  (Perhaps secondarily it also acts as a subtle advertisement for the JS&EHS Historical Society itself.)

Utah LDS have a notoriously fickle relationship with Church history — alternately embracing or rejecting historical truths depending on whether the details are flattering or embarrassing to modern LDS sensibilities.  To its credit, the JS&EHS Historical Society was upfront in mentioning plural marriage in Emma Smith: My Story (albeit briefly) and does again here.  Although to date there are no known descendants of Joseph Smith from a wife other than Emma, the DVD is direct in admitting the possibility still exists and any such posterity should be “heirs” to Joseph’s legacy and embraced within the larger gospel family the same as everyone else.

The fathered children question is one instance where LDS historians can be upfront about “sensitive” issues in Church history because the facts are relatively benign:  modern DNA testing has not turned up even one child sired by Joseph through another wife, even disproving some candidates that early historians were convinced were Joseph’s.   Possible candidates without the ability to be tested (including one woman whose mother told her on her death bed she was Joseph’s child) still exist so historians will probably never know for sure.  For now, however, the make-up of Joseph Smith’s posterity is fairly uncontroversial.

(You may ask:  given the admitted existence of plural marriages in the first place, does it really matter whether Joseph had any additional children by other wives?  It is significant only in the sense that critics of Joseph Smith often attempt to explain away early polygamy as “Joseph just wanted to have lots of sex with many different women” — an easy oversimplification which allows Church skeptics to dismiss Joseph Smith as a simple pervert without any further need for analysis or critical thinking.  Evidence that he fathered nine children with Emma and none (so far) with the other 30+ women he supposedly married just to have sex with frequently — some of whom testified there was no sexual relationship at all — raises obvious questions about that “theory”.  No, this won’t solve the “polygamy problem” for anyone skeptical of plural marriage in general, but it at least suggests that Joseph Smith’s vision and motive for plural marriage was more complex than sexual lust.)

Addressing polygamy somewhat directly doesn’t mean Children of Joseph gets away unscathed from “whitewashing” LDS history, however.  As much as modern Utah Mormons like to believe the transition of Church leadership from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young was clear and seamless, there were six splinter groups with their own claims to LDS leadership after Joseph’s death, one of which was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ) headed by Joseph Smith’s son.  Children of Joseph dismisses any significance of the RLDS sect, especially among Joseph’s posterity, mentioning only that some of Joseph’s children “participated” in the reorganization movement.

(Note: Joseph Smith III was the Prophet/President of the RLDS Church for 54 years.  His brother David Hyrum served with him in the RLDS First Presidency for 23 of those years.  Their other brother Alexander was an RLDS apostle and Presiding Patriarch.  Direct descendants of Joseph Smith led the RLDS Church for over 100 years. I think that goes beyond “participating” in the reorganization movement.)

Much of the chaos in the Mormon leadership vacuum at the time is discussed in vague, non-specific terms by the DVD historians, who mention “misunderstandings” and “assumptions” without any specific examples.  Any hope of an objective view of historical events ends early on by some highly biased editorializing.  Several talking heads comment about how Emma remaining in Nauvoo “may have cost [her and her children] the fullness of the gospel”.  (The RLDS then and now would disagree.)  One of Joseph Smith’s great-grandsons is portrayed as “the first descendant of Joseph Smith to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood”.  (The RLDS who can also trace their Melchizedek Priesthood directly to Joseph Smith would disagree again…)  One LDS member insists that gaining a testimony of Joseph Smith as prophet is important, but “for the descendants of Joseph Smith, they need to gain a testimony of Brigham Young.”  (The RLDS shake their heads once again…)

Given the target audience, the Utah-LDS bias is expected, but for a so-called “Historical Society” to blithely ignore a significant part of Mormon history, especially in a “documentary” specifically about Joseph Smith’s descendants, borders on intellectual dishonesty.  Today’s LDS leaders insist (correctly) that Mormons should be included in the “Christian” tent, but also insist (with no hint of irony) that no other church is allowed in the “Mormon” tent, even those who believe in Joseph Smith as a Prophet of God and the Book of Mormon/Doctrine & Covenants as scripture.  (There are over 300 churches that meet that definition today.)  Is it that difficult to accept other branches of Mormonism as our spiritual siblings, all striving to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ in our own way?  (After all, that’s what we desire from other Christians, right?)

The Historical Society is obviously sincere about wanting to bridge gaps between the descendants of Joseph Smith and the descendants of Brigham Young, but it won’t help if LDS Mormons insist that the RLDS brand of Mormonism experienced by a large portion of Joseph Smith’s posterity somehow doesn’t count — that it’s a religious legacy so insignificant that even addressing the church by name and treating it as a legitimate branch of Mormonism is not worth the trouble.  If Children of Joseph wants to encourage people to have a “testimony of Brigham Young”, there’s certainly nothing here that would convince a modern day RLDS/COC member (whether related to Joseph Smith or not) that following Brigham Young brought anyone “the fullness of the gospel” compared to the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and the teachings of Joseph Smith they already had.

Good PR in Utah for the Joseph & Emma Historical Society, I guess, but bad history.

My Grade (as a PR piece aimed at Utah Mormons):  B

My Grade (as a historical documentary): D