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NH Woman Meets Mormon Founder Joseph Smith



Joseph Smith Early home at Nauvoo, IL / Library of Congress Photo

A brilliant and spirited young woman Charlotte was born into one of Portsmouth’s most elite families. Her grandfather Rev. Samuel Haven had been minister of Portsmouth’s South Parish church. Her uncle Nathaniel Haven, Jr. was a prominent freethinking Unitarian and Portsmouth newspaper editor. In her twenties Charlotte traveled West looking for adventure. She arrived in the Mormon town of Nauvoo, Illinois on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in the winter of 1843. The temperature was five degrees below zero, Haven wrote, as she traveled the last leg of the journey, bundled in layers of flannel and animals skins. She was saved from a frigid death, she wrote, by leaping from the carriage just before it tumbled into the icy river. Charlotte lodged for over a year with her brother Jesse Haven, who was doing business with the Mormons, and his wife Martha who was about to have her first baby.

Recently attacked and driven out of Missouri for their beliefs, a few thousand Mormons resettled in Commerce, Illinois, a city they renamed "Nauvoo" (the Hebrew word for "beautiful"). Another 10,000 converts quickly arrived, attracted by Mormon missionaries from the ranks of poor factory workers in the British Isles and the American East. Charlotte describes the "city of fanatics" in vibrant and often cynical detail. Arriving in the City of Saints she sees "such a collection of miserable houses and hovels I could not have believed existed in one place." Although she loved the scenery and respected the Mormon inhabitants, Charlotte was unimpressed by their leader Joseph Smith, Jr, who was not only the spiritual leader of the community, but its mayor, police chief and head of the local militia.

"Joseph Smith is a large, stout man, youthful in his appearance," Charlotte wrote to her mother in Portsmouth, "with light complexion and hair, and blue eyes set far back in the head, and expressing great shrewdness, or I should say, cunning… I, who had expected to be overwhelmed by his eloquence, was never more disappointed…his language and manner were the coarsest possible. His object seemed to be to amuse and excite laughter in his audience. He is evidently a great egotist and boaster."

Stylized portrait ofthe Mormon prophet and presidential candidate  Joseph Smith jr. from Church of Latter-Day SaintsDuring her year in Nauvoo, Charlotte Haven visited with Smith and his wife at their home, rode with him in his carriage, attended Mormon services, events and parties, and even invited The Prophet to dinner at her rented home. Her opinion of Smith as "the greatest egotist I ever met" did not waiver. Rather than elevate his subjects with great speeches, Charlotte saw Smith’s public lectures as designed "to corrupt the morals and spread vice". Of one Smith speech she writes:

"Can it be possible that so many of my poor fellow mortals are satisfied with such food for their immortal souls? for not one sentence did that man utter calculated to create devotional feelings, to impress upon his people the great object of life, to teach them how they might more faithfully perform their duties and endure their trials with submission, to give them cheering or consoling views of a divine providence, or to fit them for an eternal life beyond the grave…"

Charlotte’s lively account of life in Nauvoo – just prior to the Mormon exodus to Salt Lake City, Utah -- was first published in 1890 by a California magazine. Although unknown in her hometown, Charlotte’s detailed and candid observations as an outsider have found their way to the very heart of Mormon scholarship. When a controversial set of six bell-shaped brass plates with strange writing appeared in Nauvoo, for example, Charlotte was an eye witness. These so-called "Kinderhook Plates," that Smith declared were similar to those on which he based the Book of Mormon, were later proved to be a 19th century hoax. Charlotte also toured the house of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, who displayed a set of mummies. Haven writes:

"Then she took up what seemed to be a club wrapped in a dark cloth, and said ‘This is the leg of Pharaoh's daughter, the one that saved Moses.’ Repressing a smile, I looked from the mummies to the old lady. but could detect nothing but earnestness and sincerity on her countenance."


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