The Congregational Church of Topsfield
The historical significance of Topsfield, Massachusetts, to Latter-day Saints, the community and President Ballard
By Sarah Jane Weaver
15 May 2022
[from Church News, online at thechurchnews.com]
TOPSFIELD, Massachusetts — As hundreds of people excitedly bustled around him in this usually quiet New England community, President M. Russell Ballard stepped forward and read the inscription on a new memorial in the Pine Grove Cemetery.
“Five generations of a remarkable American family resided in Topsfield, beginning with Robert Smith, who came to Massachusetts in 1638,” it began. The list of Smith family members on the monument concludes with Joseph Smith Sr. — the father of Joseph Smith Jr.
President Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visited Topsfield on Saturday, May 14, to celebrate the life and sacrifices of the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. — and the five generations who came before him — and to dedicate the monument. It memorializes Joseph Smith’s ancestors who lived, worked and worshipped here.
Their story is a prequel to President Ballard’s story.
“My mother is Geraldine Smith. She is the oldest daughter of Hyrum Mack Smith, who is the oldest son of Joseph F. Smith, who was the youngest son of Hyrum Smith,” he explained.
Claiming his own family connection, President Ballard said, is always a “glorious privilege.”
“It is very special to be here and to be able to contemplate and appreciate the impact of my forebears — Hyrum and Joseph Smith,” he said.
Accompanying President Ballard to Massachusetts were Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy and Church historian and recorder, and Brother Craig B. Ballard, President Ballard’s son and a member of the Young Men general advisory council. In addition to visiting the cemetery and participating in the dedication, the group also visited the Smith homestead and historic Gould Barn in the community.
“We are here today because it is important to never lose sight of those who have laid the groundwork and built the path that has led to the light and truth [of the gospel of Jesus Christ] that is available to those who are willing to seek it, find it, embrace it and join it,” President Ballard said.
‘A cherished place’
Anne Barret, president of the Topsfield Historical Society, said the history of the Smith family is intertwined with the Topsfield community. The new marker — built by the Ensign Peak Foundation in collaboration with town officials — serves as a quiet reminder that the Smiths were once here, she said.
“One might be tempted to think that this small sleepy village wouldn’t boast much in the way of history,” she said. “But, in fact, Topsfield’s story is really the quintessential story of so many New England towns and the people who brought their hopes, dreams and vision to this land,” she said.
When the town was settled — a time when religion was central to everyday life — villages were required to hold church meetings; in 1650 a petition was submitted to the colonial government asking that a new village be established in Topsfield so inhabitants would not have to journey to far-off villages for Sunday meetings and other village activities, said Barret.
Once an agricultural community, Topsfield is still home to the United States’ oldest continuous fair. Many residents who live in the rural, suburban community today work in nearby cities in professional and manufacturing jobs. “But what has remained constant is that this small village has remained a cherished place for over 350 years,” Barret said.
Kim Wilson, chairman of Ensign Peak Foundation, called Topsfield a place of remembrance. “Over the generations, people are going to come here and they will be able to tell the story of the noble Smith forebears in America,” he said.
Heidi Swinton of the Ensign Peak Foundation said “all of us in Christianity are working to do what was described of Jesus Christ: He ‘went about doing good … for God was with Him’” (Acts 10:38).
The new monument — 9 feet, 6 inches high and weighing 13,868 pounds — sits near another Smith marker, placed in the cemetery in 1873 under the direction of President George A. Smith, a counselor to President Brigham Young and first cousin to Joseph Smith Jr. Some of the Smith family are buried in the cemetery, but the locations of their graves are unknown.
Even though he never lived in New England, Elder Curtis said visiting the area is like going home. Like the Smiths, Elder Curtis’ first ancestors came to the United States and landed in Massachusetts.
“Nothing of significance ever occurs without the efforts of many people,” he said. “Many have contributed to these monument projects, giving their vision, their work and their resources.”
The obelisk design of the marker “is reminiscent of the granite monument constructed by the Church in Sharon, Vermont, at Joseph Smith Jr.’s birthplace,″ said Elder Curtis.
During his remarks, Elder Curtis mentioned other monuments in Topsfield, one at the Congregational Church where the Smiths worshipped and a second at 22 Boardman Lane, found near the Smith family homestead, which was built in 1690.
Alex Tatum has lived at and owned the property that was once the Smith homestead with his wife and children for four and a half years. Visitors are allowed to the site because he recognizes that this is a time when people are searching — eager to make personal connections to their own history. He attended a dinner the evening before the dedication and left with the same personal resolve — a desire to connect to his own family tree.
President Ballard also dedicated the monument at the Smith homestead, on a rainy day in 2005: “This monument is erected in honor of the Smith family of Topsfield whose lives and character exemplified the cultural, political and religious values of the New England region and of a new and emerging nation,” reads the marker.
Topsfield’s 2020 census population was 6,569. Town Administrator Kevin Harutunian said it is special “to have so many people from around the country and beyond come to Topsfield to engage in the historical significance of this community.”
This community, he added, is the people.
“It’s an incredibly dynamic community, small community, friendly community — one that enjoys its historical significance, seeks historical significance and loves to share that with others.”