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Missionary Moment: The Michael Kennedy Conversion Story (Third Great Grandson of Joseph Smith)

"BYU Alumni BallJoseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. (D&C 135:3)  I used to wonder in my early days of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since Joseph Smith has done so much for the salvation of men in this world and taught such doctrine about the eternal preservation of the family why he did not have all of his own family to him."

Joseph Smith and his beloved wife, Emma, saw a terrifying revelation, given five years before, come true at Carthage in a most horrifying way, severely impacting his family: “If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? And if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb…” (D&C 122:6).

It makes sense that a loving God would have a plan that would recover the family of Joseph and Emma, honor the sacrifices made, and fulfill Joseph’s petition that his family would come to “be converted and redeemed with Israel, and know that thou art God” (D&C 109:70).  I did not know then that the Lord did have a plan, nor that I would be a big part of that effort.

My name is Michael Allan Kennedy, and I was raised in a small mining town in central Nevada. Tonopah is located about halfway between Las Vegas or Reno, a bit over a four hour drive in either direction.  InTonopah 2002 addition to mining, Tonopah relies on government operations such as the Tonopah Test Range for Nuclear Testing, bombing operations for the new F-117 Nighthawk, and Area 51, which is nearby.  The military likes isolation and Tonopah is isolated. 

In my growing years, I was also isolated from both the LDS and the RLDS churches.  I never heard of either church or even the word “Mormon”. The first time I heard “LDS” I thought it was some discussion about “LSD”.  Joseph Smith was never part of any of our family discussions during my life until about halfway through my junior year in high school.  My mother and father did not participate in any formal religious organization, but we were raised understanding and believing in a divine supreme being and were raised with confidence that such a being did exist.

During a cold wintery afternoon in my American history class, Miss Glass, our teacher, felt her students would have a greater appreciation for the development of our country if we knew, in addition to the founding fathers and other historical characters, how our own ancestors were involved in the development of our nation.  By the end of the class period we received an assignment to research during the next two weeks our own family history.  Using our research we were to create a pedigree chart, select someone from that chart, and prepare both a written and an oral report on that ancestor.  This report was to show how this person, by our own interpretation, helped with the development of America. 

Taking this assignment home I asked my father for some help.  He told me there were three individuals he felt had something to do with American history in our family lines and named them off:  Orville and Wilber Wright, Jonathan Swift, and some ambiguous person by the name of Joseph Smith.”  I asked my dad who he was, and was informed, “He is the founder of the Mormons!” 

“Who are they?” I asked.  “The Mormons founded Utah,” said my dad.  Well, that sounded very “American History” to me so I selected him.  My dad left the room indicating he would be right back with the help I needed.  Within a few minutes he returned with a box and told me that everything I needed to complete my assignment I would find in this box.

Before KoreaMy father told me that he grew up never really knowing his family.  He explained that his father, Roger Alexander Kennedy, was killed about a year after he was born and he was raised by a step father who was very abusive.  Sometime after my father turned 17, he joined the Army which required a birth certificate.  That was when my father first learned that the man he called father was not really his father:  “I was raised with the name Roger Allan Butler and never liked the name Roger so all my friends called me Al Butler.”  My father started in the military with that name and during his service in the Korean War it was changed to R. Allan Kennedy.

The military shipped my father off to serve in the Korean War. Dad told me of several unique experiences during the War when he felt a higher power watching out for him and preserving him.   Because of these experiences he felt he wanted to know a little more about his true heritage, so he contacted his favorite aunt, Glenna Henderson, who lived in Independence, Missouri.    At the end of the war after my father was discharged, he visited with Aunt Glenna, and she gave him this box of records.

After explaining, my father left the room and I took the box over to the table and began going through its contents by sorting it on the table.  I pulled out a picture of Emma Hale Smith, wife of the Prophet, then another one of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother.  I also found a journal of Alexander Hale Smith, Joseph’s son, and other documents and artifacts.  As I was extracting the material from the box, the doorbell rang. Being the closest to the door, I answered it.

 At the door were two young gentlemen, slightly older than me, well-dressed, with name tags indicating that they both had the same first name, “Elder”.  One of them said, “Hello, I’m Elder Archibald, and we have a message for the head of the household.”  I brought them in and called for my dad.

As we were waiting for my father to arrive, these young men glanced at the artifacts on the table and noticed the pictures.  The two elders stared at each other for about a minute and then Elder Scott asked me what these items were. I told them that I was working on a school homework assignment involving one of our ancestors, whose name was Joseph Smith, and who founded the Mormon Church.

How was I to know that the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which was on their name tags and “the Mormons” were the same thing!  It was obvious these young men were very excited.

They gave me all six discussions in the next ten minutes.  This brought the rest of the family down: my mother and three brothers.

As these Elders explained who they were, my father arrived and informed them he was a second great grandson of Joseph Smith and I was Joseph’s third great grandson.  The Elders indicated they had some “discussions,” and would like to come back next week, since they would help me with my homework assignment.  My father agreed, and every Tuesday at 7:00pm these Elders came and gave us the discussions.

However, after the first two discussions I noticed this was getting rather religious, and decided I did not wish to participate any further since I had a bad experience with another religion a year earlier.

Since that time I have developed a great testimony that our Father in Heaven is a master of choreography.  What I did not know then, and learned many years later, was that these missionaries were tracting out Tonopah on a limited eight week “test” mission.  At that time, The Church only had enough missionaries for larger communities such as Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Fallon, Las Vegas, etc.; not enough to assign to small towns.

Today, I’m the president of the Joseph Smith and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society  founded in 2006.  One of the JSEHS projects was producing the movie, “Emma Smith, My Story.”  In the process, I was introduced to McClain Bybee, of LDS Philanthropies.  As we got to know each other, I learned he served as a councilor in the mission presidency of that mission during the same time the missionaries came to our door.  Brother Bybee informed me those missionaries were testing to see how well or receptive the area would be to the missionaries;  if not, they would close that part of the mission down.  At the end of the eight weeks, the missionaries had to return to Fallon, Nevada to continue the rest of their mission, as the test was not very productive.  During this eight week period there were only two families in Tonopah who agreed to take the missionary discussions – my family was one, and the other family was the Gene Dodge family whose daughter, Darcy, is now my wife.

Darcy and Mike at Jr. PromDarcy was a golden contact, anxious to be baptized.  She accepted the gospel literally the first time the missionaries came to her home.  As the missionaries pleaded with Darcy to wait until the sixth discussion before committing to baptism, they asked her if she knew Mike Kennedy.  She did, and they told her, “He keeps ditching out of the lessons, is there anything you can do?”

Before, as I believe was choreographed by the Lord, and previous to the visit of these Elders to either of our homes, Darcy and I were elected to be leaders of the High School newspaper.  I was elected President and Darcy was made a reporter, so we knew each other from this association.

Darcy knew my mother through work and had a conversation with her, after which I was not allowed to “ditch out” on the lessons anymore.  I came up with another idea, following that old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” I decided to tell the missionaries I would get baptized but not until after I graduated from high school.  If they were still interested they would come back in a year to baptize me.  (They did).  I figured if I waited to get baptized then, that after my baptism I would leave for college and never see the missionaries again, and I could continue with the rest of my life.  The missionaries could go their way, telling anyone they wanted that they baptized me, and they would go away happy.  Everyone would be happy.

The next heaven-choreographed event, which I also did not know about until years later, occurred after my baptism.  My father called his aunt, Glenna Henderson, who was the same aunt that gave us the box.   She had collected all the artifacts that were handed down from one generation to the next since Emma, retrieving them from various families. She had given them to my father some twenty years earlier.  My father told Aunt Glenna about my baptism.  Coincidently, at that very moment, Buddy Youngreen, who had been assigned by President Harold B. Lee to find descendants of Joseph Smith and Lucy, was visiting with Aunt Glenna.   Buddy, after hearing about my baptism, thought he ought to mention it to President Lee once he returned back to Salt Lake City; and so he did.

After hearing Buddy’s report, President Lee asked, “Buddy, where is this young man? I would like to meet him.”  Buddy responded, “President, he’s currently attending college at his father’s Alma Matter and believes he has gotten far away from all the Mormons.”  

President Lee responded, “Oh! Where is that?”  Buddy told him, “In Cedar City!”  President Lee then asked Buddy to visit me and ask me to go to Salt Lake to meet with him.

Buddy came to my apartment and knocked on my door at 2:00am.  My father was part of central Nevada’s Search and Rescue program, and we grew up knowing that if someone came to your door at that hour something bad had happened.  When I opened the door, I found a stranger, dressed in Sunday clothes.  He informed me that President Harold B. Lee would like to meet with me.

I was greatly troubled by this.  I had only been a member of the Church a little over thirty days.  I wondered what I had done wrong that got the attention of the President of the Church.  Nevertheless, I agreed to go, and a few days later I climbed into Buddy’s car and we began the trip to Salt Lake.

After the usual formalities were completed with President Lee, he asked:  “Brother Kennedy, as the third great grandson of our beloved Prophet Joseph Smith, tell me what you know of him?”

All I knew about Joseph Smith was the report I gave in high school.  I figured it was pretty good since I got an ‘A’, so recalling it from memory I explained to President Lee how Joseph Smith discovered the State of Utah.  I did not get too far into this explanation when President Lee interrupted and asked me if I would mind waiting for just a minute, because he had someone he would like me to meet; and he left.

A few minutes later, he came back, and in tow was this new apostle.  I was introduced to Elder Bruce R. McConkie.  President Lee said, “Elder, this young man is the third great grandson of the Prophet Joseph Smith, a literal descendant, and he has been explaining to me how Joseph Smith discovered the state of Utah.  What are your impressions?”  Elder McConkie replied, “President, I think we have a problem!”  President Lee went on, “Elder McConkie would you mind spending a little time with this young man and help him with this problem”.

I then went through more discussions, not the kind I felt comfortable to ditch.  Today I cherish the insights, teachings, and counsel he gave me that have guided me and always stayed with me.

At that time, however, I had different reason to go to Salt Lake.  Salt Lake City is half way between Cedar City, UT and Rexburg, ID where my girlfriend, Darcy, elected to go to college.  By this time, I wasEarly Marriage falling in love with her but I was confused with lack of what appeared to be reciprocal feelings because of all the “Dear John” letters she had been sending me, making me very confused.  Since half the trip was already covered, I took a Trailways bus the rest of the way to Rexburg to talk to Darcy face to face and find out if we could work things out.  As I got off the bus, instead of a hand shake I got a “big” hug.  I left, believing an opportunity was still possible.  Darcy introduced me to her roommates, who had convinced her that the best person to marry was a returned missionary.  I did not qualify.  All of them told me that I had to serve a mission first, and that I had made some commitment to serve a two-year mission.  I kept telling them I made no such commitment, but it did not seem to matter.  I was determined when I returned back to my apartment in Cedar City to prove them wrong.

After I returned to my apartment, I searched through all my belongings and finally found my baptismal certificate.  Sure enough, I was right.  Nowhere on the certificate was any mention of a commitment to serve a two-year mission.  To add additional validation, I called my bishop and made an appointment with him to discuss serving a mission.

He readily invited me to meet with him, and so I did the following Sunday.  I told him about the conversation with my girlfriend and her roommates.  He simply responded, “Brother Kennedy, you made this commitment before you were even born!”

He really did not want to know what I was thinking about the Church after that remark, but eventually the conversation came to this question, “Brother Kennedy, if you were to know that the Lord wanted you to serve a two-year mission would you serve.”

I told him if I knew the Lord wanted me to serve I would. He said, “That is all I need to know for now.”  We shook hands and I left.  A few weeks later, his secretary called and indicated the bishop would like to meet with me again, and I agreed to the visit.  By this time, I started attending church because I learned Joseph did not discover the state of Utah, and I wanted to learn as much as I could, as soon as I could, to avoid any further embarrassments.

During the course of the conversation, the Bishop told me it had been made known to him that the Lord did not wish me to serve a mission at that time.  However, he did have a mission for me later on, and I would not be able to complete that mission without the experiences I would develop during marital life.  My Bishop told me, “So it is with the blessings of the Lord and the Church, you will be an exception and should continue with your plans to marry.”

I was elated and happy and anxious to return to my apartment where I called Darcy on the phone and informed her, “I have Bishop’s permission to go ahead and get married.”

Darcy said, “I only want to be married in the temple.”  “Okay,” I said, “not a problem – pick one!”

Darcy said, “Michael what is your priesthood?”

I said, “I believe they made me a deacon.”

“You can’t go to the temple as a deacon; you need to be advanced in the priesthood.”

“Alright”, I said somewhat reluctantly.  I called the Bishop back and told him I needed to be advanced in the priesthood.  The Bishop said, “I’d love to talk to you about that, and believe we can help you with it.”

Another appointment was made, I was interviewed and the Bishop indicated he would recommend me to the ward for priesthood advancement.  I was elated. The following Sunday I stood amazed as all these people, who did not really know me, supported the Bishop in my priesthood advancement.  Later, during the ordination, I was very excited and anxious to call Darcy and give her the great news.  As soon as I could, after the “Amen”, I ran for home, called Darcy and told her I had great news.  “Not only can we get married in the temple now, but they advanced me in the priesthood, and I can probably do the ceremony myself because they made me a Priest.”

I was deflated to learn the Bishop gave me the wrong priesthood, so after disconnecting from Darcy I called the bishop back and informed him he gave me the wrong priesthood; I needed this Melchizedek priesthood.

Bishop asked me, “Brother Kennedy, how long have you been a member of the Church?”  I told him, “About three months.”  And he responded, “Brother Kennedy, usually we don’t advance anyone to the Melchizedek Priesthood until they have been a member of the Church for at least a year.”

I triggered on that word, “usually.” That meant there had to be an exception, and I wanted to know what it was.  He informed me that only someone higher in authority could authorize it.  I remembered one of the conversations I had with Elder McConkie recalling a discussion about there being three members in the First Presidency, twelve members in the Quorum of the Twelve, at least seventy members in the Quorum of the Seventy, and (at the time) many Assistants to the Twelve. I suggested to the bishop that we start with one, and keep asking until someone said yes.  The Bishop suggested I should just leave the matter in his hands.

 A few weeks later, the Bishop caught me in the hallway and mentioned that the stake had some business in a few weeks that would require the presence of a General Authority, and that  they would present my petition to him. I asked, “Great, who is he?” 

 He responded, “Elder Bruce R. McConkie.”

I suggested we move on to the next one.  From his expression, I recognized later on in life, that he knew how little I knew.  A short time later, Elder McConkie came and interviewed me and the Bishop separately.   It was during this time where I learned I would be the first of Joseph Smith’s posterity to receive the Melchizedek priesthood, fulfilling prophecy that one day the priesthood would be returned to the Prophet’s line before his posterity would be gathered.

Darcy and I were sealed in the Provo Temple (that was her favorite), and for the next ten years I grew in the Church, developed a testimony, and then began to lead the effort to help create opportunity for the posterity of Joseph and Emma to receive the teachings of the gospel that Joseph Smith taught. 

Darcy and I do frequent firesides, and I’m often asked, since I was so slow to develop a testimony at first, what my testimony now is.  I tell them:

Joseph’s faithfulness, despite very difficult situations, taught me to trust in the Lord. The Lord knows our sacrifices; and we have had plenty.  We have had many trying times and can relate to Emma and Joseph’s sacrifices.

In the latter days of Joseph’s life just a short time before his death, Joseph Smith had two problems which weighed heavily on his mind.   In the role as Prophet and President of the Church, he had the sealing keys bestowed on him by the authority of God from those who held those keys, and it was his responsibility to make sure these sacred keys and the authority to exercise those keys were passed on, to ensure the continuation of the Priesthood and the ability to bind on earth and in heaven.   Ensuring that that authority and those keys would always be in place, in the manner the Lord had designated.

The second problem: in the role of a father, knowing he would be taken, what would become of his family?

Kennedy Campout Broadbent MeadowsI know he sacrificed his life, knowing what the cost of restoring the gospel would be to his family.  Trusting in the Lord, he was assured that that cost would be made up by the restored sealing keys he held.  The Priesthood would no more be taken from the earth, his family would one day all be sealed to him.  Joseph Smith had to have the fullness of the priesthood before he could pass all the keys of that priesthood on to those the Lord authorized; Joseph had great comfort in that.  Joseph Smith could not have received the fullness of the priesthood without sharing the ordinances he received with his eternal companion, his beloved wife, Emma.  “Neither is the man without the woman nor the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11).  I have full confidence today that Joseph Smith, my third great grandfather, who still guides the affairs on this earth of this last dispensation, is watching closely over the ministering of his family, and does so with the mother of his posterity, Emma Hale Smith.

Joseph Smith also taught me that when I pray to that Supreme Being my father taught me about, I now know whom I am praying to; I know His nature, His character, and His great love for us. This knowledge makes my conversation with Him real, and his answers are as real because I know He lives and He does

hear our prayers.  He has answered mine, some the way I wanted, and many in other ways.  As I continue to perform my service to God and my family, I know the impressions I receive have important meaning.  I learned what Joseph taught: this life is about the perpetuation of the family and preserving that family so my wife and my children will always be mine and always be with me.  I know the Lord made this promise to Joseph and Emma.  They trusted and relied on that promise.  Emma wants her children and grandchildren as much as Joseph does.  I know they are depending on me to lead this gathering effort. Joseph Smith knew before his death that he would be dependent on his own posterity to bless his family through the temple ordinances, like other families are dependent on their posterity to do their work in the temple.  I know that baptism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave me entrance into the kingdom of Heavenly Father,  and most importantly  that it was the receiving of the ordinances of the Temple, with my beloved wife, and now eternal companion, that made me an heir to our Father in Heaven.

 Sincerely,

Michael Allen Kennedy