One of the lesser-known aspects of Joseph Smith’s family history is that his uncle, Jason Mack, anticipated many of the themes that would become important to the Mormon movement. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Jason was “a studious and manly boy” who became a “Seeker” by the age of sixteen. Among other things, Jason held that “there was no church in existence which held to the pure principles of the gospel.” At age twenty he became a minister. His mind, he said, was so entirely “taken up with the deplorable situation of the earth” that he held meetings and preached the gospel “day and night.”
Jason apparently had a particular conviction that the gifts and signs and wonders of the New Testament were still available, and he preached “incessantly to convert others to the same faith.” In an 1835 letter to his brother Solomon Mack, Jason reported that twelve years earlier the Lord had “bestowed upon me the gift of healing by the prayer of faith.” He apparently knew some basic field medicine as well, perhaps learned in the Revolutionary War, but his “chief reliance” was on the Creator “who organized us at the first, and can restore at pleasure that which is disorganized.” (The use of the term “organized” rather than “created” raises the interesting question of whether Jason shared his nephew’s rejection of creatio ex nihilo.)
Jason’s gift of healing brought a torrent of sick people to his door, but it also provoked bitter persecution. In the face of this opposition, “it pleased God to take the weak to confound the wisdom of the wise.” It pleased Jason, too. He particularly relished those times when, after an “infidel” doctor had pronounced a patient doomed, the patient was restored to health under Jason’s care.
One of the more interesting aspects of Jason’s career is that he set up a sort of socialist, utopian commune. Jason’s concern for the poor was such that he tended to give away most of his money and goods. His philanthropy seems to have inspired him to gather thirty impoverished families onto a tract of land he owned in New Brunswick, where he directed their labor and worked alongside them, then set out by himself on a schooner to take their goods all the way to Liverpool for sale. This was an astonishing and dangerous journey for one man to take alone, and in fact he almost died en route. (Jason’s philanthropy also inspired him to adopt an orphan boy named William Smith, who stayed with Joseph Sr. and Lucy for six months sometime around 1805. Perhaps this was the namesake of Joseph and Lucy’s son William.)
The similarities between Jason Mack and Joseph Smith Jr. are quite remarkable. Both were known for being studious and manly. Both developed an interest in religion at around the same age and became convinced that there was no true church on earth. Both believed in signs and wonders and spiritual gifts. Both seem to have been hostile toward doctors and skeptics as well as toward institutional religion. Both were moved by an apocalyptic concern for a “darkened” society. Both were concerned for the poor and founded communitarian societies. And if Jason Mack did in fact reject creatio ex nihilo as one of his statements seems to imply, then he had that in common with Joseph as well.
Joseph and Jason seem not to have ever met. Jason visited the Smiths twice in Vermont just prior to Joseph’s birth, and then seems to have been largely (though perhaps not entirely) out of touch with them until 1835. Yet even if Joseph never met his uncle, it seems likely that he heard stories from his mother. Jason’s religious outlook may well have shaped Lucy’s and, through her, Joseph Jr.’s. Or perhaps Lucy and her brother were simply beneficiaries of the same family culture. Whatever the case, it seems that pentecostal, communitarian religious ministry was in Joseph’s blood.