From time to time people have produced what they contended was an actual photo of Joseph Smith, Jr. Ultimately, all those efforts proved unsuccessful. Typically, those photos had little or no connection to the Smith family. But last week, on July 19, a daguerreotype was made public with the release of the latest issue of The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. This daguerreotype, believed to be from the early 1840s, may well prove to be the exception to the rule. We’ll probably never know for certain, of course.
The full story of how this photo made its way to public viewing is available in the new issue of the JWHA Journal. An electronic (PDF) version can be purchased from the association here. It’s also available in print from Amazon here.
Here’s the highlights: The daguerreotype is owned by Dan Larsen, a great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr. He had inherited a number of family-owned items from his mother, Lois Smith Larsen, when she died in 1992. She was one of two daughters of Frederick M. Smith, who served as prophet-president of the RLDS Church (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) from 1915 to 1946. Fred M. (as he is most commonly known) was the eldest son of Joseph Smith III (first prophet-president of the Reorganization, from 1860 to 1915), who in turn was the eldest son of Joseph Smith, Jr. The inherited items included a pocket watch and what proved to be a locket, although it was designed to look just like a watch. When Larsen acquired the locket, the latch that would have opened its face cover was broken. He put it away and largely forgot about it, until March 2020. Like all the rest of us, he was stuck at home because of the pandemic and, with time on his hands, came across the items. This time he was able to open it and discovered the small round daguerreotype inside.
Dan Larsen grew up in the RLDS Church but converted to the LDS Church about eight years ago. He enlisted the aid of his nephew, Lachlan Mackay (also a direct descendant of Joseph Smith). Mackay happens to be an apostle in the Community of Christ (the RLDS Church acquired this new name in 2001) who, not coincidentally, is director of historic sites for the church and a noted scholar and historian. He, in turn, received Larsen’s permission to bring in Ron Romig, a longtime CofC archivist and historian, as well as others.
Although the pandemic had made it impossible at first to freely consult in person with experts in the field, Mackay and Romig eventually got help from an expert at the Nelson Art Gallery & Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Over the following months that led to other expert help in, among other things, comparing the daguerreotype to the death masks made of Joseph and Hyrum Smith after their assassination on June 27, 1844. The photo is believed to be somewhere around a 90-percent match with Joseph’s death mask.
For those wanting to know even more background (or don’t want to shell out $25 for the print version of the journal or $15 for the PDF), here’s an interesting YouTube interview by Steven Pynakker with Lachlan Mackay and John Hamer (who designed the journal cover and serves as pastor of the Community of Christ Toronto Centre Place congregation, which has an extensive online presence). Hamer is well known among Mormon history and Sunstone enthusiasts (and a former LDS member himself). This lengthy interview covers much of the information in the journal article.
Of course, the bigger challenge is that the photo doesn’t look all that much like well-known paintings of Joseph. In the minds of so many believers, those paintings (especially the one from 1842 shown at the top of this blog) represent what Joseph looked like. Artisic renderings, however, are never reality. In the painting, Joseph appears much younger and more attractive. His nose is longer and his lips are fuller. That may well be due to the style of painters at the time. Artists perhaps try to make their subjects better looking. It’s not unreasonable to think that people in their late thirties who lived on the American frontier in the early- to mid-nineteenth century probably aged quicker than thirty-somethings in early, twentieth-first-century urban America. They didn’t have sunscreen back then, either.
It’s helpful to compare a portrait of Emma Smith from 1842 by the same artist to a known daguerreotype (circa 1845) of her. Granted, those were terribly rough years for Emma. At the time of Joseph’s death she was pregnant and raising several children, often on her own because of Joseph’s many other responsibilities. She was Relief Society president and operated the Mansion House as a hotel. For years she had dealt with (a) rumors of Joseph’s frequent infidelity or (b) his introduction of a secret marriage plan involving numerous women. Their married life since the Pennsylvania years involved persecution and constant moving from one location to another. By the time of Joseph’s death she had became a bitter enemy of Brigham Young and others in the Twelve. For starters, they insisted after his death that all of Joseph’s property (personal and real estate) belonged to the church, which they now controlled. Those factors alone would age anybody. She later refused to accompany them west, eventually uniting with the Reorganization headed by her eldest son, Joseph Smith III.
Keep in mind that the Joseph Smith daguerreotype is owned by Dan Larsen, not by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Community of Christ (which, by the way, does own the well-known portraits of Joseph and Emma Smith and the Emma Smith daguerreotype used here). The members of the John Whitmer Historical Association are predominately Community of Christ members, although like the Mormon History Association, includes folks from many latter-day saint groups as well as those outside the Restoration movement.
The COJCLDS ran a news item on its Church News website shortly after the JWHA Journal was officially published. The Deseret News has so far run three stories on the photo: here, here, and here. But at least so far (and this may have changed by the time you read this) the church’s First Presidency has not commented. Why?
Perhaps they’re still smarting from the Mark Hoffman forgeries many years ago. Maybe it’s simply because the church does not own the copyright on the daguerreotype, thereby making it impossible to control the narrative. Those are both plausible explanations. But it makes me wonder about a possible third option: Once an actual photograph of Joseph Smith, Jr., is authenticated it may have the effect of chipping away at the myth of the founding prophet. The image we’ve all had of Joseph up to now has been an imagined one, and from that it’s easy for a myth to grow. But a photo clearly shows this was a man, a human being just like all the rest of us. What then of the myth(s) of the Prophet Joseph?
- Does it really matter whether our known image of Joseph Smith is a painting or a photo? What effect does that have on the “myth of Joseph the Prophet”?
- What is your impression of the daguerreotype?
- How much does it matter that this one has been in the Smith family for more than a century and a half?