Lydia and Lucy: Exemplary Mothers of the 18-19th Centuries

A similar version of this post was given as a talk in the Cambridge 1st Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake (65 Binney Street, Cambridge MA) on Mother's Day 2017. 

Two mothers

There are many types of mothers: mothers with twelve children to mothers with one. Mothers who have lost children or adopted them. Women who leverage their motherliness to bless children around them even if they do not have their own offspring. Non-judgmental mothers-in-law, grandmothers who listen, step-mothers who love unconditionally.

The Bible tells us of many exemplary women. We honor Eve, the mother of all humankind. We revere Mary for her purity and faith. We study the love of mother-in-law Naomi and the “unfeigned faith” of Timothy’s grandmother Lois.

From my study of the great mothers of the scriptures, I’ve observed many spiritual gifts and I have learned from their examples how to be a more devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. I have also observed the greatness of women in our own recent church history and how they consecrated their lives.

I’d like to tell you about two mothers: Lucy Mack Smith and Lydia Gates Mack, the mother and grandmother of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We revere Joseph as the prophet who restored Christ’s church to its original form as Christ established it two thousand years ago. Joseph at fourteen years old had a burning question, wanting to know which church he should join. He entered a grove of trees near his home and as he prayed, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, explaining all were wrong, and subsequently commanded him to restore the truth and church as Christ had organized it in ancient days.  

A trustworthy teacher: Lydia Gates Mack

Proverbs 31: 10 and 11: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her...”

Joseph Smith’s grandfather Solomon Mack wrote his own history including the role of his wife: her name was Lydia Gates Mack. In the 1760s and 70s Solomon and Lydia had four children. They lived in what he described as a wilderness. He says, 

“Here I was thrown into a situation to appreciate more fully the talents and virtues of my excellent wife; for, as our children were deprived of schools, she assumed the charge of their education, and performed the duties of an instructress as none, save a mother, is capable of. Precepts, accompanied with examples such as hers, were calculated to make impressions on the minds of the young, never to be forgotten.” 

“She, besides instructing them in the various branches of an ordinary education, was in the habit of calling them together both morning and evening, and teaching them to pray; meanwhile urging upon them the necessity of love toward each other, as well as devotional feelings toward Him who made them.”

He continues, “In this manner my first children became confirmed in habits of piety, gentleness, and reflection, which afforded great assistance in guiding those who came after them, into the same happy channel. The education of my children would have been a more difficult task, if they had not inherited much of their mother’s excellent disposition” (Smith 4-5). 

There are a few things I learn from this story. One is that Lydia was trustworthy. Whether or not school and church teachers provided what was needed, she knew the buck stopped with her. She took responsibility for the secular and religious education of her children. Also, Solomon recognized that she took initiative and devoted herself to rearing well-educated and faithful children—husbands, you bless your wife by recognizing her efforts and expressing your trust in her. 

Barbara Smith said, “trust is to human relationships what faith is to gospel living. It is the beginning place, the foundation upon which more can be built. Where trust is, love can flourish.”

A faithful seeker of God: Lucy Mack Smith 

Lydia had a daughter named Lucy, born on July 8, 1775, three weeks after the battle of Bunker Hill and one year before the United States declared its independence from the British Empire.

In her teens, Lucy was in charge of caring for her older sisters Lovina and Lovisa, who were very sick. She said that when she cared for Lovina she was never out of her sight for more than an hour (Smith 12). When Lovina died, Lucy became, in her words, “pensive and melancholy” (Smith 24).

What I find remarkable is how she turned sadness into faith. She wrote, “in the midst of this anxiety of mind, I determined to obtain that which I had heard spoken so much of from the pulpit—a change of heart.”

Seeking for that change of heart, she spent a lot of time reading the Bible and praying. However, she initially did not join any specific church, saying almost prophetically, “if I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world, and if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. No church will admit that I am right except the one with which I am associated. This makes them witnesses against each other, and how can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they are all unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days!” (Smith 25)

After she was married and had two sons, Alvin and Hyrum, she became ill with confirmed consumption. The doctors had given up on her and she was about to die. During the night she made a covenant with God that she “would endeavor to serve him according to the best of my abilities” (Smith 28). She then heard a voice say, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Let your heart be comforted; ye believe in God, believe also in me.” A few moments later her mother came in the room and said, “Lucy, you are better” (Smith 28). To keep her promise to God, Lucy studied the Bible actively, attended sermons, and although there was “not then upon the earth the religion which I sought,” she got baptized.

Later, her son Joseph would have that vision of God and would restore the original Church of Christ to the earth–with a prophet, twelve apostles, and seventies, the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, sealing ordinances, truths about the nature of God, and more. Lucy recognized the truth when she heard it and believed with all her heart.

Lucy has been revered as a “mother in Israel” and I think this story, told in her own words, shows why. There was a time when Lucy and her family were traveling to Kirtland. When they had gotten off the boat with other church members, there were many who were displaying awful conduct—murmuring, grumbling—it was described as a clamor. Lucy’s son William asked for her help. She says,

“I stepped into their midst. ‘Brethren and sisters,’ said I, ‘we call ourselves Saints, and profess to have come out from the world for the purpose of serving God at the expense of all earthly things; and will you, at the very onset, subject the cause of Christ to ridicule by your own unwise and improper conduct? You profess to put your trust in God, then how can you feel to murmur and complain as you do! You are even more unreasonable than the children of Israel were; for here are my sisters pining for their rocking chairs, and brethren from whom I expected firmness and energy, declare that they positively believe they shall starve to death before they get to the end of their journey. And why is it so? Have any of you lacked? Have not I set food before you every day and made you, who had not provided for yourselves, as welcome as my own children? Where is your faith? Where is your confidence in God? Can you not realize that all things were made by him, and that he rules over the worlds of his own hands?” (Smith 161). 

What I learn from this story is that Lucy acted as mother to all those who joined the church. She fed and cared for them as her own children. She was also willing to chastise them. To every secular need she expressed a spiritual response. Step up, be adults, believe in God. Good motherly advice.

Jaynann Payne wrote in 1972, “Her unique combination of traits seemed paradoxical; she was impulsive and determined, yet she relied upon the promptings of the Spirit to temper and give authority to what she did and said. When an unscrupulous teamster tried to steal her horses, wagon, and all their possessions as they were moving to Palmyra, she showed her spunk by confronting him in the inn in front of all the travelers present.” 

With each hardship she faced, her faith got stronger. When in trouble, she immediately turned to God for help. She wasn’t afraid to make covenants and promises with God. Faith is more than a mere belief that God exists. Faith is active.

Lucy was well-acquainted with death and near-death. She lost her first child as an infant. Then her next child, Alvin, died at age 25 because of a doctor’s mistake. Hyrum and Joseph were martyred by an angry mob. In some instances, she had the miraculous power of healing. Typhus fever broke out in 1813 in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Eight of her children caught it and Sophronia, who was ten, stopped breathing. Lucy picked her up and paced the floor with her, praying. People told her Sophronia was dead, but suddenly Sophronia gasped for breath and lived.

The Lord said, “And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit.” (D&C 11:12) 

A protestant pastor once approached Lucy and said “you are the mother of that poor, foolish, silly boy, Joe Smith, who pretended to translate the Book of Mormon.” In Jaynann Payne's words, the story unfolded this way: 

“She looked him straight in the eye and replied: 'I am sir, the mother of Joseph Smith; but why do you apply to him such epithets as those?'

“Because that he should imagine he was going to break down all other churches with that simple Mormon book.

'Did you ever read that book?' Lucy asked. 'No, it is beneath my notice,' he retorted. Lucy then bore her testimony that 'that book contains the everlasting gospel … and was written for the salvation of your soul, by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost.'
'Pooh,' he replied, 'nonsense—I am not afraid of any member of my church being led astray by such stuff; they have too much intelligence.'
Lucy replied with the emphasis of the spirit of prophecy: 'Now, Mr. Ruggles, mark my words—as true as God lives, before three years we will have more than one-third of your church; and sir, whether you believe it or not, we will take the very deacon, too!' 

The Reverend Mr. Ruggles’s sneering expression changed rapidly, and well it might, for within two months Joseph sent Jared Carter as a missionary to Michigan upon Lucy’s advice. Jared converted seventy of the minister’s members, and his deacon, Samuel Bent, was baptized in January 1833 and became a stalwart in the Church!"

Lucy’s experiences with death and with life shaped much of her testimony. Through poverty and migration, life and death, she stood firm in her faith. She did not let go of her beliefs.


Smith, Lucy Mack. History of the Prophet Joseph Smith by His Mother. (referenced as "Smith" in the sources within the body of this post)


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