Since Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision,’ teens have played key roles in Mormon history

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A depiction of church founder Joseph Smith's "First Vision."

Mormon founder Joseph Smith was 14 years old when he said the God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in response to a prayer 200 years ago. Ever since, teenagers have played key roles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the faith’s Sunday meetings, teenage boys bless and pass the sacrament, or communion. Most members who leave on volunteer church missions are 18 and 19 years old. Teens serve in presidencies of the church’s all-male Aaronic Priesthood quorums or in Young Women class presidencies.

The church holds up as examples teenagers in scripture from Daniel to Samuel in the Bible to the Prophet Mormon in its foundational text, the Book of Mormon, whom it says saw God and led his nation’s armies as a teen. The church extolls stories about modern teens from spies for Joseph Smith to courageous pioneers and even a teen who was executed by Nazis for opposing them.

As former Young Women General President Bonnie Oscarson said about church youths, “The Lord often calls those who are in their teenage years to be engaged in his work of salvation, like Joseph Smith, Mormon and Samuel. He doesn’t seem to be as concerned with how old a person is as he is with his or her heart. He sees the potential each person has, no matter his or her age.”

Here is a look at some of the teens with important stories in Latter-day Saint history:

Teen spies for Joseph Smith

Dennison Harris and Robert Scott were 19 when a group of former church members conspiring to assassinate Joseph Smith invited them to their meetings in Nauvoo, Ill. They reported the group’s ongoing plans to Smith and continued attending at his request.

Smith warned them it was dangerous, and told them to make no oaths and to speak little. He gave them blessings for strength.

Joseph Smith

At a final meeting, all were asked to swear an oath of solidarity — which the two teens refused to join. Angry conspirators told them to swear or be killed. They braced for death. But a conspirator urged others to rethink the threat, since their parents knew where they were and killing them could bring problems. They were released with a warning to tell no one of their plans.

They reported what happened to Smith and helped preserve his life for a time. The church leader told them, “Brethren, you do not know what this will terminate in,” according to “Saints: The Standard of Truth,” a recently church-published history. The conspirators pushed charges that eventually would land Smith in jail, where he was murdered by a mob.

Sisters who saved modern scripture

The church considers the Doctrine and Covenants to be modern scripture. It records revelations to Smith and other church leaders. Two girls helped save the earliest printing of it from a mob in Missouri.

Mary Elizabeth Rollins, 15, and her 13-year-old sister, Caroline, watched as a mob rushed the church printing office in Independence, Mo., where the first edition of the Book of Commandments, the volume’s original title, was being printed.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo)The Doctrine and Covenants first edition from 1835 on display at the Church History Library on Sept. 3, 2014.

The marauders tossed papers and type out of a second-floor window. Others emerged with arms full of printed paged and shouted as they threw them in the street.

Mary wanted to save the revelations, while Caroline worried they would be killed — but she vowed to stay with her sister. When the intruders turned their back to work on tearing down the printing office, the girls ran and grabbed as many pages as they could carry.

They darted into a tall cornfield and laid on top of the papers, and listened as the vandals stomped on the stalks looking for them before finally giving up. Some copies of the book were completed and bound using pages they saved, and the two girls were presented with copies.

Teen was Joseph Smith’s teacher

Teens today (usually with adult companions) are assigned to watch over specific members in what is now called ministering. In the past, it was called home teaching or visiting teaching. An early teen was nervous to be appointed as such a teacher to Joseph Smith.

William Farrington Cahoon recorded that Smith was gracious when he arrived and gathered his family. The 17-year-old Cahoon then asked some questions.

“I said, 'Brother Joseph, are you trying to live your religion?'

"He answered, ‘Yes.’

"I then said, ‘Do you pray in your family?’

"He answered ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you teach your family the principles of the gospel?’ He replied, ‘Yes, I am trying to do it.’

"'Do you ask a blessing on your food?' He said he did. ‘Are you trying to live in peace and harmony with all your family?’

"He said that he was.

"I turned to Sister Emma, his wife, and said, ‘Sister Emma, are you trying to live your religion? Do you teach your children to obey their parents? Do you try to teach them to pray?’

"To all these questions she answered, ‘Yes, I am trying to do so.’

"I then turned to Joseph and said, ‘I am now through with my questions as a teacher and now if you have any instructions to give, I shall be happy to receive them.’ He said, ‘God bless you Brother William, and if you are humble and faithful, you shall have power to settle all difficulties that may come before you in the capacity of a teacher.’”

Black youth leads migration

Jane Elizabeth Manning was a free black woman when she joined the church as a teenager in Connecticut. She wrote that she later led a migration of nine family members (even though some were older) from there in 1840, when she would have been 18 — although contemporary evidence suggests it was later, when she was 21.

Her family was separated from other migrating Latter-day Saints when they did not have fare for canal boats. So they started walking the 800 miles to Nauvoo.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jane Manning James

“We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground,” she later wrote. Some tried to arrest the group as possible runaway slaves, and they escaped in part by crossing a neck-deep river at night. One sick child was credited as healed by the group’s prayers.

When they finally arrived in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith met them and said to Jane, “You have been the head of this little band, haven’t you?” He asked her to relate their experiences, and let the group stay in his home temporarily.

After others had found places to live, Jane was left alone — and Smith found her crying because she had no home. He said, “Yes, you have; you have a home right here if you want it.”

“Aunt Jane,” as she came to be known, moved in with Smith’s household until his death a few years later.

Teen fearless amid threats

Joseph F. Smith — the nephew of Joseph Smith — eventually became the sixth president of the church from 1901 to 1918. But much earlier, he left for a mission to Hawaii at age 15.

When he was returning, at 19, he was part of a wagon train in California when some hoodlums rode into their camp threatening to kill any Mormon they could find. One who held a gun asked Smith if he was a church member.

Yes, sirree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through,” he responded. The ruffian grasped his hand and said, “Well you are the [blankety-blank] pleasantest man I ever met. Shake hands, young fellow. I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.”

No harm came to him. When Smith was in his late 20s, he was appointed an apostle by Brigham Young.

Nazis execute German LDS teen for resistance

As a 16-year-old, Helmuth Hübener listened to forbidden shortwave radio broadcasts that painted a picture of Nazi Germany that was far different than the propaganda spread by his government.

He also was upset when leaders and others in his congregation joined the Nazi party or became more supportive of Hitler’s Third Reich. So he and two friends published and distributed leaflets about what they were hearing on the shortwave radio.

(Markus Schreiber | AP file photo) The sun lights the buildings behind the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland on Dec. 6, 2019.

Hübener was arrested and accused of treason. While he was jailed, the Nazi head of his congregation soon excommunicated the boy from the church. The government found him guilty, and, at age 17, he was beheaded — the youngest anti-German Nazi to be executed for rebellion.

The day of his execution, he wrote to a fellow Latter-day Saint and said, “My Father in Heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong. I know that God lives and he will be the proper judge of this matter. Until our happy reunion in that better world, I remain, your friend and brother in the gospel, Helmuth.”

After the war, local church leaders wrote that Hübener had been excommunicated by mistake — and he is seen in the church now as a source of inspiration for his bravery.

Modern teen celebrities

In recent times, several Latter-day Saint teens have become celebrities — and some of its best-known members globally.

Atop that list were Donny and Marie Osmond, and their singing Osmond Brothers. Those older brothers (Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay) gained notice as a barbershop quartet in a Disneyland special, and soon became regulars on Andy Williams’ television show. Donny made a debut on that show at age 5 and later became a teenage idol with a string of hits.

He and his sister hosted the popular “Donny and Marie Show” in the 1970s. Their hits and long careers have made them among the world’s best-known Mormons.

(Isaac Brekken | AP file photo) Donny and Marie Osmond pose backstage at their show at the Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas on April 28, 2011.

David Archuleta also shot to stardom as a singer. At age 12, he became the Junior Vocal Champion on “Star Search 2”. In 2008, at age 18, he finished second on the seventh season of "American Idol.”

By March 2012, Archuleta had sold 1.1 million albums and 3.3 million tracks in the United States — when he decided to put his music career on a two-year hiatus to serve as a church missionary in Chile.

An example of teen athletes praised in church circles is McKay Christensen. Major league baseball teams dangled a $1 million signing bonus if the teen would skip a mission and play baseball. He chose the mission, but the California Angels drafted him anyway and allowed a two-year break for the mission (and traded him while he was proselytizing in Japan).

Christensen later played in the majors for the Chicago White Sox (1999-2001), Los Angeles Dodgers (2001) and New York Mets (2002).