“You’re a wee man, but be a good wee man.”
These were the last words that Margaret Wilson spoke to her only son Joseph Smith Wilson as she embraced him, closed the door and wept knowing she might never see him again. Her heart was too full to go with him to the train station on the first part of his journey from Dundee, Scotland to Liverpool, England where he would board a ship to travel to America. Like biblical Hannah who prayed for a son and dedicated him to the work of the Lord in the temple, Margaret had prayed for a son and covenanted that she would send him to Zion to perform a mission when he was of age. That time had come. It was September 1922 and Joseph was almost twenty years old.
Margaret had been baptised as a teenager in Glasgow after her father met missionaries and accepted the restored gospel. After the death of her first husband and child, within a few months of each other, Margaret moved to Dundee where she later met and married William Wilson, a shy retiring man who worked as a tailor. She had very basic skills in reading and writing. Although her husband never joined her religion or showed any interest, she believed with all her heart and soul that Joseph Smith was the prophet of the restoration. Having had a difficult birth with her sixth child, she didn’t expect to have any more children. With three surviving daughters, she was coming near to the end of her child-bearing years.
While reading in the Millennial Star about Joseph Smith and his martyrdom, she reflected on how he not yet reached the age of 40 years and could have been the father of more children if he had lived. She decided to pray and ask for a son. If this was granted, she would call him Joseph Smith. She made her plea and covenant with all the sincerity of her child-like faith.
Margaret subsequently conceived. In the third month of her pregnancy she had a visionary dream in which a woman in a white robe with flowing long black hair came with a baby in her arms and placed it in Margaret’s lap saying, “Yes, you shall have a son.”
From that moment Margaret was assured that her humble prayer had been answered. When the child was born on 22nd December 1902 she said, “Here is my promised son. Now we will name him after the prophet Joseph”.
But in its first few months, her young son did not thrive; a doctor pronounced he was so scrawny that he wouldn’t live. With no organised branch of the Church in Dundee at the time, Margaret wrote to the elders in Glasgow and asked them to pray for Joseph.
Joseph later said, “They did, and wrote back, and when she read their letter, she says I looked up in her face and smiled. Then she says, ‘Thank God he’s going to live.’”
Money in the Wilson household was always short. Margaret went to work in the jute mills while her mother-in-law, who lived with Margaret’s family, tended the children. Young Joseph developed rickets as a child due to lack of proper nourishment, causing his legs to be deformed. Although they seem to improve as he got older, he never grew any taller than 5 foot and 1 inch.
As missionary elders began to hold regular Sunday meetings in Dundee, Joseph felt the beginning of the growth of his own testimony. He was baptised in 1911 by Elder Marriner Eccles who would later become the President of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1933, while Franklin D Roosevelt was US President.
Joseph remembers childhood as a happy time, full of mischief, some mishaps, and lots of fun and friends. He left school at 14 and worked in a carpet factory. He did not enjoy this type of work as the rattling and clattering of 100 looms was unsettling and stressful. He said,
“When I was about 15 years old my mother got after me and said, ‘Remember your name. You go and get that Book of Mormon out and read it.’ Well I did commence to read it and began to get the spirit of the book. I could hardly lay it down and while reading it I knew it was true, and to read about the Saviour visiting the people in America to me was glorious. I read the book a second time; then I knew that Joseph Smith could never have written that book out of his own head. I didn’t comprehend the book then like I do now, but it was the Spirit witnessing to me the glorious things I was going to be teaching all of my life when I got to this country [America]. The Book of Mormon has always been precious in my life.”
When he was 19, his mother reminded him of her covenant and said that it was time for him to go. His older married sister Maggie was then living in Salt Lake City, so initially he had somewhere to go. Joseph had known since childhood of his mother’s promise to the Lord and was willing to go. He never saw either of his parents again. His sister Lizzie Wilson McKenzie would visit him in America but later settled back in Dundee, where she was instrumental in the re-establishment of the Church there after World War II. She was affectionately known as Granny McKenzie by one and all.
Joseph was never homesick for “the old country”. He loved being able to attend General Conference. The month after he arrived in Utah he said, “I was so happy to be at conference and sit as it were at the feet of these great men. I hungered for the gospel and a knowledge of it.”
Sincere prayer to find work that was suited to his physical size and strength resulted in a life-long career as a painter and decorator. After several years in Utah he and his family, for health reasons, moved to San Diego in California.
Margaret’s prayer and covenant began to be more fulfilled as Joseph became an outstanding authority in his knowledge and teaching of the Book of Mormon. This was his mission.
One who benefited from his tutelage was Hartman Rector Jnr. who would go on to become a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He recorded his experiences with the missionaries as he began to learn about the Church:
“My first church experience was in an investigators' class taught by a wonderful little man whose name was Joseph Smith Wilson. Brother Wilson is a great authority on the Book of Mormon. He knows the book by page number. I would ask him questions and he would answer, ‘Brother Rector, the answer to that question is on page 104 of the Book of Mormon.’ Then he would read the answer. I would ask another question and he would respond, ‘That's on page 223.’ Then he would turn to page 223 and read the answer from the Book of Mormon. I attended his class for only a few Sundays before it became time for me to leave for Korea. I thanked him for the time he had spent in answering my questions and told him I would probably not see him again for the next eight to ten months. He said, ‘Brother Rector, you will join the Church while you are away.’ I told him I didn't think I would, because my wife and I wanted to join the Church together when we joined. He insisted that I would join the Church while I was away.”[i]
Joseph’s prediction was correct. While Hartman was aboard ship in 1951, he heard an announcement for a Church meeting. He joined four members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who gathered together one evening. They looked like the missionaries he had already met. He explained that he was not a member of the Church but was interested in studying about it. They welcomed him enthusiastically, but he was surprised they were unable to provide page numbers from the Book of Mormon to answer his questions. On board, he studied the scriptures and other Church books, which Hartman described “like food and drink to a starving man.” He was more than ready to be baptised when the ship docked in Japan in February 1952. His wife was baptised four days later in San Diego.
The bond of love between Joseph Smith Wilson and his mother remained strong and tangible even although they were apart. Whenever she wrote to him, she wept in her longing to see and hold him again. He told of his experience in 1924:
“One Saturday in April I was studying my Sunday School lesson at the home of George Erskine. They had gone to a movie and put the kids to bed, and I stayed and looked after them. All of a sudden, I felt my mother’s presence coming into the room. She gave me the impression to sing her favourite hymn. It goes like this. ‘When first the glorious light of truth burst forth in this last age, how few there were with heart and soul to obey it did engage, yet of these few how many have passed from earth away, and in the graves are sleeping till the resurrection day.’
“I told George and Catherine Erskine that night when they got back from the show that my mother was dead. George said ‘Why? Did you get a telegram?’ I said no but her spirit came to me and told me that she had passed on and wanted me to sing her favourite hymn. Well he didn’t believe me and said you just imagined that. I told him I would be receiving word soon of her death and would show him the letter. Well in about a week or ten days I got the letter from my sister Lizzie telling of mother’s death. … I showed the letter to George and then he believed me.”
In his senior years, in spite of his diminutive size, Joseph Smith Wilson was recognised as ‘The Biggest Wee Man’ in the San Diego, California El Cajon Stake, for his spiritual stature, an epithet of which his Scottish mother Margaret would have been proud.
In her humble faithfulness, she had set in motion a great on-going work. Her legacy is a large righteous posterity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Taken from Autobiographical Notes FamilySearch Reference: KW8Q-ZR9
[i] Hartman Rector Jnr. “No More Strangers”