Joseph Smith’s Home Teacher and Social Roles

I’ve never enjoyed home teaching.

I’m uncomfortable with it for several reasons, such as going into others’ homes in what I’ve often felt (for me at least as a natural introvert) is an artificial and shallow capacity. I am particularly uncomfortable in situations in which the social roles are either only vaguely defined or uncomfortable to me. For example, I do just fine, even quite well in classes, where I am clearly either professor or student. I’ve been both, and I’m comfortable with the mutually-understood roles of both. The student understands that they are there to learn from the professor, who presumably knows more than they do, and that they are in some way subordinate to the prof. The professor, on the other hand, recognizes that their role is to bestow information on the students, to guide, goad, and question.

When it comes to home teaching roles, are the teachers and teachees equals? Or am I a shepherd, in the sense that I can inquire into their devotions and testimony? Or are we friends? Do friends question friends? Do the home teachees have a responsibility to respond to them? Do home teachees recognize that we are assigned to them as a shepherd?

I have the same discomfort when someone I know personally as a friend is suddenly behind a desk asking me temple recommend questions. The social shift from friend-friend to questioneer-questionee and the changing responsibilities accompanying that shift make me uncomfortable.

However, I have a new strategy. I live in a new Ward in a new Stake where I can re-create myself and my approach to home teaching. When I meet my new families, we’re going to read a journal entry from a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood.

Recall that “The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking… They are, however, to warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ. ( D&C 20:53ff )

In this sense, home teachers have been around from the beginning of the Church. We possess the journal account of William Cahoon, the 18-yr old teacher assigned to watch over Joseph Smith and family.

Being young, only about seventeen years [eighteen] of age, I felt my weakness in visiting the Prophet and his family in the capacity of teacher. I almost felt like shrinking from duty. Finally I went to his door and knocked, and in a minute the Prophet came to the door. I stood there trembling, and said to him, “Brother Joseph, I have come to visit you in the capacity of a teacher, if it is convenient for you.”
He said, “Brother William, come right in, I am glad to see you; sit down in that chair there and I will go and call my family in.” They soon came in and took seats. He then said, “Brother William, I submit myself and family into your hand,” and then took his seat.
“Now Brother William,” said he, “ask all the questions you feel like.”
By this time all my fears and trembling had ceased, and I said, “Brother Joseph, are you trying to live your religion?”
He answered, “Yes.”
“I then said, “Do you pray in your family?”
He said, “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 answered, “Yes.”
“Are you trying to live in peace and harmony with all your family?”
He said that he was.
I then 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.”
I then left my parting blessing upon him and his family, as a teacher, and took my departure.

(From “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith: Elder William Farrington Cahoon,” Juvenile Instructor 27 (August 15, 1892): 492-3. That was taken from the W. F. Cahoon autobiography in the Church archives, as quoted by William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829-1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22:1 (1996): 85-86, an excellent article that traces the shift from men being ordained to Aaronic priesthood to our system today.)

I like this a good bit, and I feel it establishes things on the right foot. I also find comfort in Emma’s response of “Yes, I am trying to do so.” I have known good home teachers and the good that they can do. I’m just not one of them, yet, but I am trying to do so.

  • Dorothea

    Thanks for your thoughts. I really enjoyed that story about Joseph Smith.
    Growing up in the church I also had mixed feelings about home teachers, particularly the time they took to visit our family and whether it was time “well spent.” However, in one ward my husband and I had a home teacher who changed my perception of home teaching. Here we were, a young couple with a baby, and my husband was either Elders Quorum President or in the Bishopric. Our home teacher didn’t come every single month, but he seemed to be there when we needed him. There were times he presented a message that was a direct answer to our prayers, and he had no idea what our personal concerns were. He even gave me a message when I had a new baby that was so perfect that it has stuck with me and helped me all these years. He wasn’t a father himself but one of 10 children, so he did have some understanding of what it meant to have a new baby in the home. We had this home teacher till it was decided that there weren’t enough to go around and since we weren’t a family that was having “problems” or issues we weren’t going to have a home teacher any more. But every family has struggles, even those in leadership positions. I really missed the insight and inspiration this humble brother had for our family as our home teacher.
    Now that my husband is a bishop home teaching has taken on a new meaning for us, too. My husband can’t be all things to all ward members, so it is helpful when good home teachers are there to meet some of the families needs.

    (sorry this got so long)

  • john willis

    It appears that Brother Cahoon was the Prophet Joseph Smiths home teacher in Kirtland. My gg grandfather John Oakley was an Aaronic priesthood holder in Nauvoo and was the prophet’s home teacher in Nauvoo. I quote from his autobiography. (President James E. Faust mentioned him in his talk in the Priesthood session of the April 2006 conference)

    “I was called to act in the office of a teacher and in company with another elder had a district assigned to us which inclueded Brother Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Smith and families. We had a hesitancy to visit such as we well knew we were not capable to teach them. Yet we could not find any excuse to pass their houses , so we ventured. The president Bishop Newell K. Whitney gave us a routine of questions to ask everyone in our district. Among the questions was “Do you keep the word of wisdom?” We found Brother Joseph Smith the most cooperative of any in our distirct. After he had answered questions, he called his wife Emma Smith to answer also. I then asked him the meaning a purpot of the word of wisdom as at that time there was a great diversity of opinions concerning it. He answered “I understand the Word of Wisdom to mean that we must act in Wisdom in all things. If I thought a glass of Brandy would do me good or a cup of coffe or to smoke a cigar I would use these things”Thus he gave us the meaning of the Word of Wisdom. But we knew what he meant when he said”If I thought.”

    John Oakely (1819-1890) joined the church with his family as a young man in the New York City area. He moved to Nauvoo in the 1840′s, came west with the saints in 1847, served a mission to England was second in command of the first handcart company and ended up as a Patriarch in Snowflake , Arizona.

  • Ben Spackman

    Thanks for that John!

  • john willis

    you’re welcome

  • lrh

    Ben, you are a riot! Leave it to you to have a post that is both hilarious and extremely insightful. I don’t know how you do it.