Alvin Smith was the eldest surviving brother of Joseph Smith (the first-born son had died in infancy). Alvin was born on February 11, 1798, at Tunbridge, Orange County, Vermont. He did much to help the family’s economy. He worked to pay for the 99.5-acre farm at Farmington (later Manchester). His mother Lucy Mack Smith wrote:
- “It was not long till we had 30 acres ready for cultivation. But the second payment was now coming due and no means as yet of meeting it. Alvin accordingly proposed: … ‘I will go abroad to see if I cannot make the second payment and the remainder of the first.’ By my son’s persevering industry he was able to return to us after much labor, suffering, and fatigue with the necessary amount of money for all except the last payment.”
Alvin also supervised construction of the Smith’s frame home on the property. Lucy wrote: “My oldest son took principle charge of this, and when the month of November, 1822 arrived, the house was raised and all the materials procured for completing the building. Alvin was very much animated by the idea, as he said, of making father and mother so comfortable. He would say: ‘I am going to have a nice pleasant room for them to sit in and everything arranged for their comfort, and they shall not work as they have done any more.’”
One reliable source said of Alvin: “Alvin was the oldest son and worked the farm and was the stay of the family.” Joseph himself wrote of Alvin, “the noblest of my father’s family,” one who “lived without spot from the time he was a child,” and “In him there was no guile.”
He supported Joseph’s claims of heavenly manifestations. According to Lucy, “Alvin had ever manifested a greater zeal and anxiety, if it were possible, than any of the rest with regard to the record which had been showed to Joseph.”
False Reports and Fraud
Confusion and, in fact, false reports about Alvin began to circulate during the mid-1980s due to the forged documents created by Mark Hofmann. Richard Lloyd Anderson explored the details of that fraud in “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction” in the Ensign Magazine. In part, he writes,
- Brother Knight tells how Joseph first went to the hill but was denied the record because of carelessness: “Joseph says, ‘When can I have it?’ The answer was the 22nd day of September next if you bring the right person with you. Joseph says, ‘Who is the right person?’ The answer was ‘Your oldest brother.’ But before September came his oldest brother died.” Two later reports tell similar stories, basically repeating the Chase affidavit.
- We do not know why Alvin was identified as the person Joseph was to bring with him to the hill the following year. Nor do we know why Alvin died a few months later. Perhaps Alvin’s death was simply an accident of mortality, as Chase reported Father Smith saying. On the other hand, the Lord may have taken Alvin home for reasons we do not yet understand. Part of the problem is that we do not know the exact words of the angel. Joseph Knight simply said that Joseph’s oldest brother was the right person to bring.
- Whatever the reasons Joseph was told to bring Alvin to the hill, the point is that the Salamander Letter copies Chase and Knight. However, it makes a serious historical mistake by misrepresenting the timing of the command. In the Salamander Letter, “Joseph says, when can I have it? The spirit says, one year from today if you obey me. Look to the stone. After a few days he looks. The spirit says, bring your brother Alvin. Joseph says, he is dead—shall I bring what remains? But the spirit is gone.” In this fraudulent version, the command to bring Alvin comes after Joseph’s first conversation at Cumorah, and even after his brother’s death on 19 November 1823. Whether these perversions of the facts were intentional or not, they added an unnecessarily macabre dimension to a wonderful experience later made bittersweet by the tragedy of Alvin’s death.
- Why was Joseph instructed to bring another person? The procedure must have been important, for both Knight and Chase add that after Alvin died Joseph was told to bring Emma, a reality confirmed in her patriarchal blessing given by Joseph Smith, Sr.: “Thou shalt ever remember the great condescension of thy God in permitting thee to accompany my son when the angel delivered the record of the Nephites to his care.” These and other sources suggest that Emma went to the hill in 1827 but prayerfully waited nearby while Joseph received instructions and the ancient book.
- Evidently, no one would be entrusted with the plates without companionship. It may be that knowing that someone else would also share the burden would strengthen the young prophet, or perhaps it had something to do with the scriptural law of witnesses. (See Deut. 17:6; 2 Cor. 13:1; 2 Ne. 27:14.) Whatever the reason, in 1823, before Joseph met Emma, Alvin was honored by being named worthy to assist him, an evident result of Alvin’s strength of character.
Alvin’s Illness, Death, and Post-Mortal Life
On November 15, 1823, Alvin began experiencing stomach cramps, possibly caused by appendicitis. He was treated by a doctor who was not their regular physician and was possibly overdosed with calomel which caused mercury poisoning (it was later found in his blocked intestine along with gangrene). He died in Palmyra, New York, on November 19, 1823. His death occurred two months after Joseph’s first visit to the hill.
According to his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, “a lovely young woman who was engaged to be married to my son shortly after the time in which he died” also felt the grief of the family. Lucy also noted that as he lay dying he called for each family member to come to his bedside. To his brother Hyrum, next eldest, he said, “I have done all I could to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to go on and finish the house.” To Joseph, he urged him to fulfill all of the requirements to “obtain the records. Be faithful in receiving instruction and keeping every commandment that is given you.” Lucy wrote,
- “Alvin was never so happy as when he was contemplating the final success of his brother in obtaining the record. And now I fancied I could hear him with his parting breath conjuring his brother to continue faithful that he might obtain the prize which the Lord had promised him.”
Younger brother William reports: “Reverend Stockton had preached my brother’s funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy, and my father did not like it.”
On January 21, 1836, the Smith family and others were gathered together, and the First Presidency “laid our hands on our aged Father Smith and invoked the blessings of heaven.” Then Father Smith blessed his son Joseph, after which the Prophet beheld the intense glory of the celestial kingdom, as recorded in section 137.
- The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.
- I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;
- Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.
- I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.
- I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
- And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
- Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.
Four years later, in 1840, Hyrum was baptized for Alvin. Baptism for the dead by proxy continues to be an ordinance practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Smith Sr. died in the fall of 1840, surrounded by his family. “It had been nearly seventeen years since Alvin’s death, a time in which their loved one had never been far from their thoughts. In his quiet, last moments, Father Smith’s eyes brightened with the surprise of clear vision, and before passing he simply said, ‘I see Alvin.’”