Joseph Smith’s Athletic Nature
Alexander L. Baugh, “Joseph Smith’s Athletic Nature,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 137–150.
Alexander L. Baugh was director of the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina, when this was published.
One of many noted remembrances held by numerous contemporaries of the Prophet Joseph Smith was his love of righteous physical activity, his participation on individual athletic contests, and his demonstration of various feats of strength which extended in antebellum America. In the article “Joseph Smith: The Prophet” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Richard L. Bushman and Dean C. Jessee summarized the Prophet’s athletic nature by stating that, “It was not uncommon to see his involved in sports activities with the young and vigorous men of a community. He is known to have wrestled, pulled sticks, engaged in snowball fights, played ball, slid on ice with his children, played marbles, shot at a mark, and fished” (3:1338). A fuller examination of the historical sources of the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith attests that this summery of his athletic nature is correct. However, it is only by examining the historical sources representing the Prophet’s athleticism that we can understand what motivated him and why he was inclined to participate in such activities. At the same time, however, such an understanding will also lead to an increased insight into his personality and character.
Perhaps the primary reason Joseph participated in athletic contests was because he was big and strong; he had a physical constitution that was given to exercise and activity. Surely, if he had been a smaller, weaker man, his personal interests probably would not have been in rigorous physical activity. But historical resources show that in his mature years, his body was well-formed and favorably proportioned. Three elements combined to bring this about. First, genetically speaking, he inherited fine masculine figure. In fact, his physique appears to have been very similar to that of his father’s, Joseph Smith, Sr., who was reported to have been six feet two inches tall and well proportioned, weighing about 200 pounds (History of the Church 4:191; hereafter HC). Second, his body was no doubt conditioned from years of chopping wood, building fences, digging wells and ditches, and cutting down trees and removing stumps, as well as moving heavy rocks on the family farm. Finally, like all members of the human family, his physical tabernacle was given to him through the wise providence of the Almighty, who created man in his physical and spiritual image. Professor Truman Madsen has suggested that God endowed the Prophet Joseph Smith with the corporeal body which He did in order for him to be able to bear up under the physical persecution and trials which characterize his life (20).
Numerous contemporaries and associates left recollections of Joseph Smith’s physical size and build. I note here only two: George Q. Cannon said, “When he had achieved the prime of his manhood, he seemed to combine all attractions and excellencies. His Physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit. He was more than six feet in height, with [an] expansive chest an clean cut limbs—a staunch and graceful figure” (19).A correspondent writing for the Saint Louis Gazette in May 1844, just one month prior to the martyrdom wrote, “General Smith is in stature and proportion a very large man; and his figure would probably be called a fine one,” and then notes that, “His chest and shoulders are broad and muscular” (Evans 177). A summary of the descriptions of Joseph Smith’s physical build indicates he was tall, over six feet in height (possibly as much as six feet two), this being considerably above normal in size for that period of time. He possessed strong arms and legs, a muscular chest, broad shoulders, and weighed around 200 pounds. Clearly, Joseph Smith had the necessary physical attributes which enabled him to exalt and achieve prominences in contests involving human strength and athletic prowess.
Another reason Joseph Smith participated in sporting contests was his competitive spirit which he found great enjoyment in athletic competition. Numerous accounts also exist here which show that he was a talented and accomplished athlete, particularly in the sports of wrestling, pulling sticks, and jumping at a mark.
In early nineteenth century there were various popular forms of wrestling, among them, “side-hold wrestling”. By the 1830s, Americans had abandoned the traditional Greco-Roman style which forbids any holds below the waist, to the free-style form, known in those days as “catch-as-catch-can.” This style of wrestling allowed for almost any type of grip except strangle holds. It further appears the Prophet favored competing in matches where the objects of the contest was not to pin the opponent to the ground, but rather to throw or oust him form a pre-formed ring or circle.
Joseph’s love of sport probably made it hard for him to ever pass up a good one-on-one free-style match. Major Joseph McGee, a resident of Gallatin, Missouri, specifically recalled a wrestling contest between the Prophet and a man by the name of John Brassfield which occurred sometime after the Prophet had moved to Missouri. Brassfield was “the champion wrestler of the country,” McGee reported, yet the Mormon leader won the bout handily, throwing Brassfield “the first two falls out of a match of three” (“Special Correspondence” 23). A Latter-day Saint by the name of Wandle Mace indicated he was about as strong a man as the Prophet, and remembered Joseph would constantly hound him, hoping he would eventually consent to a match. Frequently, when the two men would meet, Mace said, Joseph would shake his hands and “pull me to him for a wrestle,” but he declined the Prophet the tussle he requested (Mace 93).
On occasion, the Prophet even challenged much smaller individuals we might consider to be the more non-athletic type to wrestle with him. Unfortunately one such contest ended with Joseph’s breaking Howard Coray’s leg. The incident occurred when the Prophet said:
“Brother Coray, I wish you was a little larger, I would like to have some fun with you.” I replied, perhaps you can as it is,—not realizing what I was saying—Joseph a man over 200ibs in weight, while I scarcely weighed 130ibs., made it not a little ridiculous for me to think of engaging with him in anything like a scuffle. However, as soon as I made this reply, he began to trip me; he took some kind of a lock on my right leg, from which I was unable to extricate it. [A]nd throwing me around, broke it some 3 inch (es) above the ankle joint. He immediately carried me to the house pulled off my boot, and found, at once, that my leg was decidedly broken; then got some splinters and bandaged it. A number of times that day he did come into see me, endeavoring to console me as much as possible. (Coray 9)
Joseph Smith was probably more competitive with challengers who could be considered his enemies and who had unfriendly or hostile attitudes toward the Latter-day Saints. One such incident occurred near the end of April 1839, after five months of confinement in Missouri’s jails, he and four fellow prisoners were conveyed from Liberty to Gallatin for their trial on the charge of treason against the state of Missouri. While on the hostile “gentile” community, once part of Mormon dominated Daviess County, the prisoners were handed over to a half-dozen of the strongest ruffians in the country. On this occasion, one of the guards, who had the reputation of being the champion wrestler in Daviess County, wanted to “try strength with the ‘Mormon’ Prophet,” having previously boasted that he could easily throw him. After such a long and unhealthy confinement during the most unseasonable time of the year, the Mormon leader was in no condition for any type of physical contest, and he exhausted himself and declined the invitation to wrestle on this occasion. However, after several solicitations by the guard, who promised not to get angry if by chance the prisoner was victor, the match was agreed to and a circle was formed. The Missourian made several attempts to secure a hold and hurl the Prophet from the ring, even resorting to trickery, but he was unsuccessful. Joseph then took the offensive, and on his first pass, picked the man up and threw him flat on his back into a pool of water, much to the delight of the other guards who ridiculed their comrade for suffering defeat. The humiliation was too much for the guard and he desired to resort to fist cuffs and to fight it out with the Mormon leader even though he had agreed he would not be insulted if thrown. Cooler heads prevailed and the other guards restrained him which brought an end to the encounter (Jenson 164–65; for a slightly different rendition of what appears to be the same incident, see Burnett 40–41).
Although we would like to believe the Prophet never lost a wrestling contest, this was not the case. Joseph Smith III remembered one man who prevailed over his father. He recalled that on one occasion several of the brethren came to visit and converse with the Joseph at his Red Brick store in Nauvoo. However, the conversation subsequently turned into a wrestling tournament which took place on an open space just west of the store. Each man took his turn grappling with the Prophet, but all were defeated one by one and the men returned to converse inside the store. While chatting, an elderly gentleman by the name of Cornelius P. Lott stopped by the establishment. Upon seeing the old man, young Smith recalled his father saying in a jolly tone, “‘Here! I have thrown down pretty nearly everybody about the place except Brother Lott, and I believe I can throw him down too!’” Cornelius, who was also a man of considerable brawn and muscle despite his age, was not to be intimidated by the more youthful Joseph Smith and agreed to the match. He also gave his rules for the contest. “‘Well, my boy, if you’ll take it catch-as-catch-can you won’t throw old man Lott!’” Joseph III remembered all of the men “immediately piled out of the house” to witness the competition. He stated that during the contest, “‘They ran together several times, but the best Father could do was to get the old man down on his knees. . . .He gave up his efforts to throw the sturdy old fellow.” Some of the men who witnessed the event gave him a good-natured badgering for not being able to defeat the elderly gentleman. And in the midst of this ridicule, Cornelius rubbed his own salt into the wound when he exclaimed, “‘I told you, my boy, that you couldn’t throw old man Lott!’” (Smith 1614).
The Prophet Joseph was perhaps even more skilled in stick pulling than he was at wrestling. In pulling sticks, two men pulling than he was at wrestling. In pulling sticks, two men would sit on the ground facing one another and place their feet against the others. Next, a stick was placed above the feet of the two participants. The men would then secure a grip and someone would call start. The contest was won when the stronger man pulled the weaker off the ground or when the weaker would lose his grip. Perhaps one reason the Prophet frequently enjoyed pulling sticks was that the activity could be done indoors or out, was not prolonged, and the participants could be wearing nicer clothes as they would not necessarily get dirty. This helps us to understand such comments as those made by Aroet Hale who stated, “ I have seen [Joseph Smith] sit down with the Nauvoo Police” (Hale 24). Joseph Smith’s proficiency in this activity probably led him to direct his secretaries to include the following entries into his personal record:
Saturday, [March 11], 1843. . . .In the evening, when pulling sticks, I pulled up Justus A. Morse, the strongest man in Ramus, with one hand. (HC 5:302) [Upon] my arrival at this city [Nauvoo] . . .I pulled sticks with the men [who were] coming along, and I pulled up with one hand the strongest man that could be found. Then two men tried, but they could not pull me up. (HC 5:465–66)
Benjamin F. Johnson remembered that in all the many occasions he saw the Prophet compete in stick pulling he never saw him beaten, noting that in spite of his success and accomplishment, Joseph “would allow no arrogance or undue liberties” (14).
Joseph was also known to have occasionally challenged others at jumping the mark, an activity which today would be similar to the standing broad jump. Although the historical evidence concerning his participation in this event is scant, one incident recorded by Wilford Woodruff is worth nothing. Some sectarian ministers paid Joseph a visit with the intent to try to trap him by posing difficult scriptural questions to him hoping to discredit his scriptural knowledge and understanding. However, he answered and explained their inquiries and then stumped them when he asked several questions from the scriptures which they could not answer. When the discussion finally came to an end and the men were about to leave, Joseph issued them another type of challenge. He went outside, drew a mark on the ground, coiled his legs, and leaped a considerable distance, then said, “Which one of you can beat that!’ The Ministers were shocked at such conduct on the Sabbath day. And Elder Woodruff remarked that that was what the Prophet expected. He did it intentionally. He could read their hearts. He knew they came to look for faults and he gave them the opportunity to criticize.” (Parry 17–18).
Joseph Smith clearly advocated athletic and recreational activity because he recognized that physical activity benefited the mind and spirit as well as the body. During his adult life, particularly after the organization of the Church in 1830, the Prophet’s lifestyle necessarily shifted from that of an independent farmer to businessman and Church administrator. This subsequently resulted in his naturally experiencing less physical activity than he had been used to in his younger years. To make up for this, Joseph breaks that frequently included some sort of exercise. As a youngster, John Hess occasionally played with the Smith children and he recalled when the Prophet “got tired of studying he would go play with the children in their games about the house, to give himself exercise. Then he would go back to his studies as before” (“Recollections” 302). More than likely this was much the same scenario for the entry in the Prophet’s history under the date of 8 February 1843, which reported, “At four in the afternoon, I went out with my little Fredrick, to exercise myself by sliding on the ice” (HC 5:265). As a boy, Enoch E Dodge remembered the Prophet occasionally joined them in a ball game of some sort. “He has played ball with other boys many times,” he recalled, “and when they had played a reasonable amount of time he would say: ‘Well I must go to my work.’ He would go and all the boys would stop paying ball and go home as he did” “Joseph Smith, The Prophet” 17:544).
On one occasion while preaching to a Church assembly, the prophet shared a story in which he explained to his listeners why he was such as active, sportive seer. The story went as follows:
A certain prophet. . . .was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said that it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time. (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith” 472)
The Prophet also recognized that physical activity could enliven should and lift men’s spirits. For example, during mid October 1838, a company of LDS militiamen, which included Joseph Smith, were encamped at Adam-ondi-Ahman to counteract the activities of Missouri who had been operating in the region. John D. Lee was a member of the Mormon company and remembered that cold rain caused the men to become despondent and then noted the following:
The Prophet came up while the brethren were moping around, and caught first one and them another and shook them up, and said, “Get out of here, and wrestle, jump, run, do anything but mope around; warm yourselves up; this inactivity will do nothing for soldiers.” The words of the Prophet put life and energy into the men. A ring was soon formed, according to the custom of the people. The Prophet stepped into the ring, ready for tussle with any comer. Several went into the ring to try their strength, but each one was thrown by the prophet, until he had thrown several of the stoutest of the men present. (Lee 76–77)
During this tournament, Sidney Rigdon, angered that the Prophet would encourage and allow the brethren to take part in such an activity, particularly since it was the Sabbath day, attempted to break it up, believing such conduct was inappropriate. Joseph Smith intervened in behalf of the men and told Rigdon if he did not allow the men their fun, he would throw him down. He then dragged him out of the ring, tearing his coat and causing him to lose his hat in the process. Rigdon complained about what happened to his clothing, but Joseph told his counselor he was out of place and had no one to blame but himself (Lee 77–78).
A similar incident happened a few days later. Eighteen year-old Edward Stevenson remembered the weather got colder and the LDS troops were camping neat Adam-ondi-Ahman without tents and were trying to keep warm around campfires. One evening several inches snow fell which caused the company to become despondent again. “The Prophet seeing our forlorn condition called on us to form into two parties in Battle array,” wrote Stevenson, “Lyman Wight at the head of the line and he [Joseph the Prophet] heading the other line and have a sham battle [and] the weapons to be used were snow balls,” Stevenson wrote. “And we set with a will full of glee and fun” (79).
Another reason the Prophet was so sportive was that he hoped to dispel many of the sanctimonious attitudes of many religionists who believed activities such as athletics were not consistent with Christianity. Most Latter-day saints came to accept the prophet’s participation in athletic activities and his playful character as part of his nature and personality. However there were many sanctimonious individuals, both in and out of the church, who were raised to believe that not only athletics but music, drama, and dancing were inappropriate and improper for those professing religious faith. And if the typical God-fearing Christian believer was not allowed to take part in such recreational activities, certainly for clergyman it would be totally impermissible. Thus, it is understandable why some individuals criticized Joseph Smith for some of his actions (see Skidmore 716–17, 762–63; Arrington 8–13).
George a Smith, the Prophet’s cousin, recalled just such an incident which occurred around 1833. A family who had recently joined the church came to Kirtland to personally meet the president. The Prophet was at his home where he was working on the translation of the bible, and when the couple arrived, Joseph had come downstairs and was taking a break from his translation duties and was romping and playing on the floor with his young children. The man and woman, shocked to see such behavior coming from the prophet apostatized from the Church (Journal of Discourses 2:214; hereafter JD). Another Latter-day Saint, Rachel Grant, mother of President Heber J. Grant, admitted that at first Joseph’s Smith behavior and demeanor caused her to question his prophetship. In fact, initially, Hyrum impressed her more like a prophet than Joseph because he was more sedate and serious. “You see,” wrote Sister Grant, “There was a great deal of sectarianism about me” (“Joseph Smith, The Prophet” 16:551).
On another occasion, a Baptist minister came to Nauvoo to meet with the Prophet. Following their conversation, Joseph Smith challenged him to a wrestling contest. Apparently, the suggestion so shocked the preacher that he just stood there, dumbfounded, not knowing how to respond, so Joseph started to the contest and wrestled his guest to the ground after which he whirled him a few times. Following the tussle, the visitor informed the Prophet “that his piety had been awfully shocked” at such behavior from an individual who claimed to be a man of God. Joseph then explained to him the falsehood connected with those who exhibited sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, and pharisaical behavior (JD 3:67)
A final reason why for Joseph Smith’s participation in athletic contest was that he saw such activities as a means of deepening the bonds between himself and young LDS boys. There are several examples that will illustrate this. For example Lorenzo Snow relates that on one occasion while Joseph was playing a game of ball with several children, his brother Hyrum came by and chastised him, believing such behavior was inappropriate for the Lord’s anointed. The Prophet then explained to the Patriarch the reason for his involvement with the youngsters. “Brother Hyrum, my mingling with the boys in a harmless sport does not injure me in any way, but on the other hand it makes them happy and draws their hearts nearer to mine; and who knows there may be young men among them who may sometime lay down their lives for me!” (Parry 97).
It is also significant that the Prophet Joseph was not above playing with the boys in the activities and games they enjoyed most. The younger generation usually preferred some type of ball game involving an entire group rather than the personal one-on-one contests which suited the older men. For example, on one occasion several youngsters were playing a game in which two teams of children were situated on the opposite sides of a house. The object of the game was to throw the ball over the roof to the team on the other side of the house, and the team catching the ball would try to get to the other side of the dwelling without being caught by someone on the opposing squad. It happened that these children were playing with a wooded, rather than a rubber ball, and the proprietor, concerned that the wooden ball would damage his roof, told the children they must leave. The Prophet came by at this time, and learning of the plight of these children thought up a new type of game they could all participate in. he first took the children over to a carpenter’s shop and had the proprietor make each of them a small wooden ball on his lathe, while he fashioned paddles for each child out of some extra scraps of wood. He then showed the youngsters how to strike the ball with the paddle. Then he taught them the object of the game. They were to hit the ball with their paddles, run to it and hit it again until they had knocked it into a distant goal. The narrator of this incident stated that this activity “gave them good exercise, tested their muscular skills, and kept them busy for an hour of two, thereby keeping them out of mischief” (Lyon, 145).
There is a message in all of this, and it is not merely that Joseph Smith was a robust, athletic individual. There is something much more significant. The founding Prophet of the church taught that a prophet is not always a prophet, “he is only a prophet when he is acting as such’ (HC 5:265). What did he mean by this statement? I believe that it was simply that prophets do not always act in the official capacity of a prophet, seer, and revelator of the Lord. They also live in family units, and are entitled to be sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and grandfathers. Further they have certain legal rights and responsibilities and may exercise their own privileges and state their own opinions. They can enjoy friendships and pursue personal interests and pastimes, including participating in the recreational activities and social functions of their society. In very simple terms, prophets are entitled to live like normal men and display ‘human” behavior, separate from ecclesiastical authority bestowed upon them by God.
Joseph Smith’s life typifies this principle. It is important that although his callings of translator, first elder, apostle, Church President, prophet, seer, and revelator were given him by divine commission, he was also a son, brother, husband, father , and friend. He took liberty to enjoy the pleasures and activities that life offered him outside his role as the prophet-leader of his people.
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