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Bridging a Rift of False Tradition: The Healing Letter Between Joseph’s and Brigham’s Descendants

Written by Mary Ellen ElggrenCreated: 18 May 2018

Written by Mary Ellen Elggren

“What of Joseph Smith’s family? What of his boys? I have prayed from the beginning for Sister Emma…They are in the hands of God, and when they make their appearance before this people, full of his power, there are none but what will say – ‘Amen! We are ready to receive you.’” Brigham Young 1860

Journal of Discourses, Vol. 8, p. 69
Brigham Young
Brigham Young

1844 was a devastating turning point in so many lives. A crime of enormous proportion had been committed, and the guilty never bore the weight of the consequences which were unimaginably far reaching. The noblest of men had been murdered, and no justice was proffered to the grieving. The Prophet, Joseph Smith, was suddenly gone, and also his two brothers. It was left to family and friends to pick up his tremendous burden and carry on. Because the priesthood is the governing power within the Lord’s Church, the greatest share of the load fell upon the Apostles and particularly Brigham Young as Quorum President. Weeks earlier, the Prophet had given the final keys of authority to the Apostles and then sent them hundreds of miles away, which undoubtedly protected their lives. Joseph’s wife, Emma, faced the overwhelming concerns of a mother for her fatherless children, but more than that, an extended family under violent attack and in mortal danger.

Brigham, who by nature preferred keeping a low profile and working in relative obscurity, was thrust by priesthood calling into uncomfortable visibility. Nevertheless, he took up his service valiantly beyond all possible expectation. Having been carefully prepared by Joseph, he took his marching orders from the Lord, and from no one else. He directed the completion of the Nauvoo Temple so the saints could be endowed, and lead the Church into the safety of the wilderness, plus many hundreds of other tasks. As he turned his eyes west, he wanted Emma Smith to take refuge under his protection. He felt strongly that women should not be burdened with their husband’s debts, but Emma elected to stay in Nauvoo where she had laid to rest her husband and other loved ones and to fight for her properties. The Lord allowed it. Shall we not respect and appreciate her choice as he did? In the wake of such tragedy, can we not understand?

History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 350. In 1843 Brigham gives strong counsel against women assuming their husband’s debts:  “I wish to give a word of advice to the sisters…I have known elders who had by some means got in debt, but had provided well for their families during their contemplated mission; and after they had taken their departure, their creditors would tease their wives for the pay due from their husbands, till they would give them the last provision they had left…such a course of conduct on the part of the creditor is anti-Christian and criminal, and I forbid my wife from paying one cent of my debts while I am absent…and I want the sisters to act on the same principle.”

We can love and admire Emma Smith for all she gave so generously to the restoration of the Lord’s Church. We can love and admire Brigham Young for rescuing the infant Church, and, as prophesied by John in Revelation 12: 1-6, preventing the dragon from devouring the child as soon as it was born. Brigham stood at the apex of the completion of this prophesy in the Last Dispensation. The responsibility now rested with him. As the Nauvoo Temple was completed, John’s prophesy was memorialized in symbolic carvings in the exterior stone, “clothed with the sun…the moon under her feet…a crown of stars…” With aching hearts, the saints left their temple and their beloved Emma Smith behind, took the infant church and stepped into an unknown future.

Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, p. 516. The woman represents the eternal Church of God. The man child is the Kingdom of God being born into the world. In the Meridian Dispensation, the child is taken back to heaven, but in the Last Dispensation, the child is protected and brought to maturity. (From a lecture prepared by Bruce Stewart.)
Wandle Mace, Autobiography, BYU Special Collections, Writings of Early Latter-day Saints 207.  Wandle Mace assumed the responsibilities of Nauvoo Temple architect when William Weeks left the Church. (From a lecture prepared by Bruce Stewart.)     

With thirteen hundred miles separating Emma’s sons from the influence of the apostles, they were vulnerable to the harsh voices of dissenters who had lost faith in Joseph and rejected Brigham Young, and who purposefully colored their childhood memories of events and helped to harden their hearts toward Brigham Young. In her grief, Emma Smith seems to have chosen to keep her feelings somewhat private, perhaps even from her family. She married again for reasons that include an effort to gain control over her financial affairs, a difficulty for a widow under the laws of nineteenth century Illinois. In these circumstances, her boys became steeped in false traditions, maybe more than she knew.

In 1860, the youthful Joseph Smith III decided to join with those who were attempting a reorganization of the Church, and had earlier pressed him to serve as their President. In 1869, his brothers, Alexander and David, were sent on a mission to Salt Lake to rescue the saints from what they perceived as the evil clutches of Brigham Young. Meeting with President Young and nineteen Church leaders including their own cousins, they revealed their hostility, and galvanized the rift that separated them from the Church which their father had given so much to restore. Asked where they got their information, Alexander remarked “I had lived through the experiences…, and did not need to have anyone inform me.” Asked if their mother did not give them information he recorded his answer as, “Yes sir, and I had more confidence in her statement than I did in his” (referring to Brigham Young.) Alexander was so sure of his position that he saw no problem with claiming his mother as his source. But Brigham and the others in the room knew the truth of things, and they knew that Emma also knew. By invoking his mother’s name, Alexander was compromising her integrity. In his ignorance, he failed to grasp the seriousness of this error (Alexander was only 6 at the time of his father’s martyrdom).

This account from Alexander’s letter to Joseph III can be found in Autumn Leaves 14, no. 8 [Lamoni, Iowa, August 1901]: 349-351
Jacob 2: 25-30. The only exception to monogamy is when the Lord specifically commands otherwise as noted in verse 30.

The practice of plural marriage, though introduced by the Lord through Joseph Smith Jr, had become central to the alienation of his sons. It is my opinion that hind sight clearly shows how inspired and effective plural marriage was in securing the early Church, not to mention the successful colonization of the American southwest. It brought thousands of God’s children quickly to the earth like an army, born into the covenant family, carrying the gospel message to the world, gathering converts, and building cities and temples. It seems evident that whenever the Lord has instituted plural marriage, as found in the scriptures, it has been for this same purpose: to raise up a righteous generation to His name to do His work. It took less than fifty years to accomplish this very purpose in these latter days. While great numbers were gathered from across the mortal world, even more effective was the gathering of the unborn from the pre-mortal world, children of God who had been foreordained to do this work. The process was necessarily accelerated by plural marriage, as it was a very narrow window of time and opportunity. Obedience to the Lord’s limited and well defined direction was essential. I am personally grateful to those who chose to obey. By 1890, it was done. No longer were Church members called to gather from the far corners of the earth. No longer was the practice of plural marriage needed. The Lord’s restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had sufficiently matured and was irrevocably launched into the world well before the end of the nineteenth century.


Working as a Church History tour director since 1974, I knew the basic story of Emma Smith and her family after the exodus of the Church from Nauvoo in 1846. Tour members were aware that Emma did not come west with the saints and that a rift had developed between Emma’s family and Brigham Young, but little else was usually known by them. They were always grateful to learn more of the story. I was pleased when I could add to the report that a bond was developing between the descendants of Hyrum Smith, who had come west, and the descendants of Joseph Smith Jr., who had stayed behind. They joined together to beautify and maintain the little Smith family cemetery in Nauvoo. It was exciting to learn that a few of Joseph’s and Emma’s descendants had actually joined the LDS Church, though the majority remained apart.

Full name: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also referred to by those who rejected Brigham Young as the “Brighamites.”

When visiting the Kirtland Temple, I often requested the Reorganized Church site director to meet my groups, because he was a direct descendant of Emma and Joseph Smith. On one occasion I introduced him as Emma’s descendant and myself as Brigham’s descendant, demonstrating that we were working together. I felt him bristle at the suggestion. I was unaware of the depth of the rift that still persisted for him. I would need and would soon receive a dramatic tutorial on the subject.

In 2007, as President Elect of the Brigham Young Family Association, I received an email from family Historian, Kari Robinson, stating that Michael Kennedy, President of the Joseph Jr and Emma Hale Smith Family Organization, was requesting that we send an emissary to their family reunion in Nauvoo and bring an apology. Our family President, David Knight, the officers and board were justifiably wary of this request. I had only a small inkling of what might be in store. Upon learning that Michael Kennedy was a priesthood holding endowed member of the LDS Church, I felt hopeful that an important opportunity was being offered. I appealed to Heavenly Father to bless us that we might know how to respond. Time was short; their reunion was only a few weeks away.

I remembered that in 1999, Elder Dallin H. Oaks had spoken to our family about the rift between Brigham Young and Emma Smith, and I reached out to him for help. He responded immediately sending a packet of his research notes, helpful quotes and a supportive letter ending with the words, “I have no counsel on the apology subject mentioned in your message, but I will say that I have met Michael Kennedy and he seems like a reasonable and well motivated person.” It seemed clear to me that this was not a Church matter; it was a family to family matter. My daughter encouraged me to write the apology. As I was explaining to her why I was not qualified to do so, words began pouring into my mind, and I felt compelled to type them as quickly as possible before they were lost. Reading what had been typed, the Spirit embraced me, and my eyes filled with tears. I audibly breathed out the words, Thank you. I think this is right. I emailed it to David Knight and the family officers telling how it was received, and left it to them to decide what to do. I left Salt Lake the next day on a Texas Temple tour.

It was a wonderful tour going from temple to temple, and sharing with the group this unfolding spiritual experience with the Smith family. Soon a series of emails began to arrive from David Knight:

  • “The officers and board have decided to use the statement as you received it.”
  • “We have a meeting set this week with Michael and Darcy Kennedy and Gracia and Ivor Jones of the Smith Family. We will give them the statement.”
  • “We had the meeting, and it started with a dark feeling of contention. Kari took out the statement and read it aloud. The contention subsided and the spirit filled the room. Everyone is in agreement.”
  • “The statement has gone to the First Presidency’s Office for review.”
  • “The statement has been reviewed. They say it’s pretty good if we will delete a couple of phrases.”
  • “You need to go to Nauvoo to present the statement at the Smith reunion. Additional Young family descendants Kari Robinson and Peter Kennedy will be joining you.”

Toward the end of the Temple Tour, I received an impression to leave the tour in the capable hands of my husband and fly home a day early, so I could join the Smith reunion starting in Independence, then travel with them in their bus to Nauvoo. I spent my last night in Texas on the phone with noted historian, Bruce Stewart, finding answers to questions I had about some of my Family’s lingering misunderstandings concerning Emma Smith (none of which come to mind now, and I am grateful to have resolved and let them go.) As head of the committee revising curriculum for the Seminaries and Institutes, Bruce had his finger on the pulse of all things Church History. He told me that I should meet with Craig Frogley, a descendant of Hyrum Smith, who had been directed by Elder M Russell Ballard to foster and help facilitate the gathering of the descendants of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack. There was no time for me to meet Brother Frogley, so Bruce emailed the materials I requested, and ended our conversation with a caution that a meeting with Craig Frogley would have been best.

Craig Frogley

Arriving back in Salt Lake, I had urgent business for the Utah Tour Guide Association of which I was President. It ended at a place I had never been, off the 106th South exit west of I-15 to drop my associate, Leslie Keston, at her new home. As we passed her chiropractor’s office, she expressed how nice it was to be close to the tender care she needed for her back. Knowing I was going to the Smith reunion, she asked if I had read The Peacegiver by James L. Ferrell. I had, but thanks to her reminder, I was prompted to take that book with me.

Soon I was boarding a sold out plane amazed that I was able to get a seat, and hoping I could get some much needed sleep during the flight. The man next to me asked where I was going. I replied, “Kansas City; where are you going?” His answer instantly dismissed all thoughts of sleep. He announced that he was going to the Joseph Smith Jr family reunion in Independence. When I told him that was my destination too, he replied, “When I saw you coming down the aisle, I just had a feeling. My name is Craig Frogley.” He also mentioned that he hadn’t been planning to attend this reunion, but the Spirit just wouldn’t leave him alone about it, so here he was. If I had any doubt that my assignment was being enabled through the veil, that doubt was gone now. While giving me important preparation for what was ahead, Brother Frogley gave me a much appreciated reassurance. Reviewing Gracia Jones’ story, he related how brave she was, that her family was steeped in false tradition concerning Brigham Young that had formed a terrible rift, keeping them from the Church. However, she had built a bridge over that rift and was the lone descendant of Emma Smith in the Church for many years during a time when Emma was not well regarded. Gracia had received the impression that “as through a woman the division came, so through a woman the gathering shall be.” Craig added, “Welcome Sister Elggren, we’re glad to have you with us.” For the first time I felt at ease about a woman being sent to represent the Brigham Young family in this matter.

Gracia Jones

I learned that Craig Frogley taught Institute classes at the U of U Institute of Religion, and he was also a chiropractor. “Is your office off the 106th South exit west of I-15?” I asked. When he said that his family of chiropractors had their offices there, it was that extra signature that left no room for speculating about coincidence, but absolute assurance there was a plan in motion, and I was being guided on a special mission.

I once heard Bruce Stewart tell a tour group in Kirtland that if they wanted to have the kind of spiritual experiences that were manifested to the early saints, they needed to get onto the cutting edge where the action is, which is family history and temple work. He was so right, and I was certainly on that edge.


Imagine my shock when in the company of the Prophet’s descendants, I learned that many of them earnestly believed Brigham Young to be the worst kind of turn-coat with a murderous heart who was responsible for the conspiracy to kill Joseph, Hyrum and even Samuel Smith, so that he could take over the Church. How could they perpetuate such a demonstrable and injurious lie? I learned that this was just a part of the false traditions that have clung to this family for generations. I had never heard any of this before. Someone asked me how I felt with such accusations being leveled at my ancestor? I responded, “He was able to endure it; I guess I can.” However the truth is that I was humiliated, offended and hurt. I felt surrounded by the enemy. About that time I looked up to see the faces of two dear friends with whom I had worked on past Church History tours, Kenneth Mays and Paul Thomas Smith. They were there to give historical information on the bus trip to Nauvoo, and though surprised to see me, I felt they were there for me as much as for the Smith family.

Journal of Discourses, vol. 5, p 77

That evening in my quarters I began to feel angry, and I wanted to go home. Sleepless, I remembered that precious book in my suitcase, The Peacegiver. I reread the story of Abigail drawn from the Old Testament. I recalled the many tender mercies of the Lord that had accompanied this whole experience. I knew the statement had been given to me through the veil, the Lord had placed me by birth and prepared me over the years to accomplish this task, time was made for Craig Frogley to coach me, faces of old friends appeared when I thought I was without friends. By morning I felt renewed and ready to board the Smith family motor coach with my Brigham Young Family name badge that had felt like a target the day before. Kari Robinson had also arrived, so I wasn’t the only “Brighamite” on the scene.

The tour was very different from usual Church History tours in this area. In Iowa we stopped at Graceland College and the cemetery where Alexander and David Smith were buried. We zipped right past Garden Grove with only a minimal acknowledgement that we were on the Mormon Trail as that was not a part of the history of the Prophet’s family. I began to see them in a new light, and this day opened the way for me and for Kari to begin building our bridge to Joseph and Emma’s precious children. By the time we reached Nauvoo, I loved them all, and they had graciously accepted my presence with them. The children immediately loved and adopted Kari.

Mike and Darcy Kennedy

Michael and Darcy Kennedy had worked on this reunion for two years, and they and another family member, Kim Smith, wanted to meet with us privately in Nauvoo the evening before we would deliver our message to their family gathering. Peter Kennedy (no relation to Michael) had arrived by this time, so there were now three “Brighamites” among the “Josephites.” Surprisingly, I was beginning to enjoy being referred to as a “Brighamite.” The meeting commenced with introductions.

Kim Smith

Kim Smith, baptized in 1998, told of her struggle to come to terms with Brigham Young. We learned that while most converts have to gain a testimony of Joseph Smith, Joseph’s descendants have to gain a testimony of Brigham Young, and it’s a stubborn and formidable barrier. There was a marked feeling of tension. Kari knew just what to do. She read our statement aloud, and I witnessed for myself the effect of it. The Spirit filled the room, and Darcy began referring to it as “The Healing Letter.” They invited us to join them in the Nauvoo Temple the next morning for the endowment session in which another of their cousins, Robert Smith, would be endowed.

R-L Peter Kennedy, Mary Ellen Elggren, Kari Robinson representatives of the Brigham Young Family

Saturday, June 7, 2007 was a day never to be forgotten. As the temple session proceeded, the word was passed: We will all come to the prayer circle. Though not an openly emotional person, I could not restrain the moisture from pouring from my face as I joined with representative descendants of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Patriarch Hyrum Smith, and President Brigham Young. As required we committed there were no bad feelings among us. We were encircled by our unseen families through the veil, and we could feel their overwhelming joy. It was truly apparent that some things must be bound on earth, before they can be bound in heaven. It is my personal feeling that this was the seminal event for which we were brought together. This temple commitment of forgiveness was required at our hands in behalf of those who were no longer on the earth.

In the afternoon we went to Carthage. A strange series of events delayed and nearly prevented the bus with the three “Brighamites” from returning to Nauvoo. Yet there was nothing that could prevent us from standing before the living descendants of Joseph and Emma Smith, and, from the mouth of three witnesses, asking them to “please accept our regrets for things past and things lost and our hand in love and fellowship for the future where all is to be gained.”

The Peacegiver, p 35-52. Abigail humbly kneels before the angry army of David, not only to save her city, but more importantly to save David.
Motor Home pulling trailer dragging bottom blocking road to the Nauvoo Temple

In Numbers 14:18 we are told “The Lord is long suffering…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It became evident that when the third and fourth generations have passed away, the fourth and fifth generations may choose to overcome the false traditions of their fathers, and when they do, they will have all that heaven allows in accomplishing it. Gracia is third generation, Michael is fourth, and I know they were foreordained by the Lord and placed by birth to do the work they are doing to gather together the descendants of Emma and Joseph Smith Jr.

I have learned some important things. The restoration was a family assignment. However, it is not a narrow and exclusive family as some may have thought. It is, instead, a broad and inclusive family. In fact, everyone who makes the baptismal covenant joins the family by taking upon themselves the family name which is Jesus Christ. It is His family.

When the saints left Nauvoo, their precious temple was destroyed, and the beloved family of the Prophet was divided away from them, but because this is the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, all things will be restored. I never thought I would see that temple rise on the hill overlooking Nauvoo, but there it is. We truly are witnessing the restoration of all things. Is the Lord waiting for us to pass away, so He can move ahead to heal up the wounds in our families, or is it time for us to simply reach out our hands and love first? “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1. We have come to a season of healing within the covenant family of the Lord on both sides of the veil. We need to attend to it using all the tools that heaven has given us. If there is a rift, for heaven’s sake, build a bridge.