In 1972, Michael A. Kennedy was a high-school junior in Tonopah, Nev., and he had an assignment. Chalking the word "genealogy" on the board, his American history teacher told her students to learn something about America's past by researching an ancestor.
"We had two weeks to research and write a report," said Kennedy, now an Alpine, Utah, resident. "At 3 p.m., I went home and waited for my dad. When he got home, I told him about the assignment."
His dad had three suggestions: Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels," who not being an American was quickly scratched; a family member named Wright who had some small part in Wilbur and Orville's historic first plane launching; and Joseph Smith.
The latter seemed attractive to young Kennedy, who thought Smith was "the guy who discovered Utah."
When he learned that this ancestor actually was founder of the Mormon church, he had a question: "Who are the Mormons?"
In time, Kennedy learned that Joseph Smith was his third great-grandfather. His Kennedy name came from the marriage of Joseph's granddaughter, Emma Belle Smith, to William Forrester Kennedy. Emma Belle was the daughter of Alexander Smith, Joseph and Emma's next-to-last son.
To help him out, Kennedy's father dredged up a box from a shelf that contained genealogy information, pictures, a Bible and other artifacts relating to Joseph and Emma Smith. The elder Kennedy had received the box from an aunt, Glenna Kennedy, with whom he had visited after serving in the Korean War. Among other things, he wanted to know about her association with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that broke away from the LDS faith after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. She was not inclined to discuss the family religious background but gave him the box, which had been passed down through several generations of the family.
Aside from Michael Kennedy's father, no one in the family had even known such a box existed, Kennedy said. For him, it was exciting. He could get his homework done in one day.
What he didn't know then was that researching Joseph Smith and his family would eventually become a full-time passion. But in the meantime, he had an assignment to finish.
He took the materials to the front room and spread them out on a coffee table. As he worked, the doorbell rang and two young men in suits ("and with the same first name — Elder") asked if they could share a message about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When his father invited them in (offering them an alcoholic drink, as Kennedy remembers), they spotted the pictures of Joseph and Emma and, no doubt, thought "Aha!"
But the missionaries were premature. They knew much more about the items than the youth did. "I told them I was doing an assignment on this guy named Smith," Kennedy recalled.
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THE UPSHOT OF THAT evening was that young Kennedy earned an A for his oral report and written paper on Joseph Smith, and his father invited the missionaries to return.
"I didn't want to be there," Kennedy said. As the family continued to hear the missionary discussions, "I skipped out whenever I could," he said.
Nevertheless, in 1973 Kennedy was baptized with the casual thought that "I'll go my way, they'll go theirs." He was one of the first of Joseph's descendants to be baptized into the LDS Church and ultimately became the first to hold offices within the Melchizedek Priesthood.
In the year following his baptism, several things happened almost simultaneously and often without his knowledge that had a profound effect on his life. One was the fact that another young person in Tonopah had heard the missionaries and been truly converted. Eliminate that factor, and Kennedy's involvement in the church might have ended there.
"My wife, Darcy, who went to high school with me, was one of those 'golden contacts,"' Kennedy said.
After they graduated from Tonopah High, she went to Ricks College, a church school in Rexburg, Idaho. He went to Cedar City to attend then-Southern Utah Community College. But Kennedy was convinced already that she was the woman he wanted to marry.
At Cedar City, another of the elements working to shape Kennedy's future began to bubble. The church had begun an effort to find the descendants of Joseph Smith, and President Harold B. Lee had assigned Buddy Youngreen to the task. Youngreen, an author, playwright and dramatist, "had a great passion for Joseph Jr. and wanted to know about his family," said Kennedy.
When possible, Youngreen would visit any of Joseph's descendants he could find. One was Michael's aunt Glenna Kennedy, who had passed down her box of artifacts to Michael's father.
"Buddy 'just happened' to be at my aunt's home when my father called to tell her that I would be baptized into the LDS Church," Kennedy said. "She relayed this information to Buddy and Buddy told then-President Harold B. Lee."
At 2 o'clock one morning, Youngreen, who was returning from Salt Lake City to his home in Los Angeles, knocked on the door of the young college student's apartment in Cedar City.
"I thought my roommates were playing a trick on me," Kennedy said. "I opened the door and there was this man in a suit and tie asking me if I would meet with President Lee. I had been a member of the church for 30 days at the time."
A brief visit with President Lee and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, made it clear that this young man wasn't yet seasoned enough in the gospel to undertake the task of helping find his family, Kennedy recalled. But he enjoyed the tour of Temple Square. And he also decided that as Salt Lake City was halfway to Rexburg, he'd continue his journey north and press his suit with Darcy.
When he popped the question, she told him she would only marry in the temple. He asked what he had to do to bring that about. She told him about the priesthood requirements for temple marriage, and he reminded her that he was a deacon. Advised that that wouldn't do the trick, he went back to Cedar City resolved to work with his bishop toward meeting the requirement.
A short time later, he called Darcy and told her, "I can now be married in the temple, and I can perform the wedding myself. They have made me a priest."
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SINCE THE OFFICE OF a priest is only the last step in the Aaronic Priesthood, Kennedy obviously had more learning to do. He was informed that a year was the usual waiting period for new converts to qualify for the Melchizedek Priesthood necessary for temple worthiness.
"I asked if there were exceptions," Kennedy said. "The bishop said yes, but they would have to come from someone higher up in the church. I suggested to him that I was going to keep asking until someone said yes."
A stake center was being dedicated in the Cedar City area and Elder McConkie, who officiated at the dedication, turned out to be the someone Kennedy was looking for. He was ordained an elder, the first of Joseph Smith's descendants to receive the higher priesthood. Soon afterward, he and Darcy were married in the Provo Temple.
The marriage celebration was marred when Kennedy's father was killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer truck as he, his wife and another son were en route to the wedding reception. Neither his mother nor brother suffered serious injuries in the crash. Kennedy received comfort in a spiritual confirmation that his father "is doing the work on the other side of the veil" to unite Smith family members.
What Kennedy describes as a "10-year growing period, with education and experience honing his testimony" prepared him for the work of finding the prophet's descendants.
"He gravitated to genealogy and would be up into the wee hours typing in names," Darcy said. Over the years, Kennedy became totally immersed in the work, devoting every moment he could aside from his "real job" as manager of an IT department for ProPay, an Orem company. The results have been phenomenal.
The names of every Joseph Smith descendant are listed on the huge family chart mounted on two walls of Kennedy's Alpine home. He has traveled extensively in search of family members, even to Australia, where a branch of the family settled. As data accumulated, Kennedy was instrumental in seeing that proxy temple work was performed for all the deceased members of the family. To date, 129 living descendants have become affiliated with the church, including 75 adults and children still too young for baptism, he said.
"The family is not large, with fewer than 2,000 descendants," Kennedy said.
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SOME OF JOSEPH'S posterity have remained affiliated with the reorganized church, whose first leader was Joseph's son, Joseph III. The sect is now named the Community of Christ. Others have joined other faiths. The issue of polygamy has "been the nemesis" for many of the descendants, Kennedy said.
"They believe that (Joseph's) pronouncement on 'celestial marriage' marked his decline into a fallen prophet," Kennedy said.
In 1984, when Kennedy was visiting with President Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve in Kirtland, Ohio, President Hinckley suggested he become more involved in the affairs of Joseph's family. One of the ideas was to create a family organization.
"With my wife and the cooperation of Gracia Jones (another Joseph Smith descendant who had been baptized) and her husband and mother, the Joseph Smith Jr. Family Organization was launched in 1985," Kennedy said.
Initially, the organization focused on research. Faced with limited funds, the group then chose to form a historical society that "could not only bless the family but the public in general," Kennedy said.
With support from Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Joseph Smith and Emma Hale Historical Society was formed. The research can be accessed at www.josephsmithjr.org.
In 2005, the bicentennial year of Joseph Smith's birth (Dec. 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vt.) was an opportune time to invite all the family members to Salt Lake City for a reunion. Representatives of each of Joseph's family were among the 159 who attended.
Current research, much of it focused on Emma's relationship with Joseph and the events in her life following his martyrdom, is being added to the Web site.
Another milestone occurred when the Brigham Young Family Organization joined in the effort by preparing a "healing document" aimed at mending animosities that have lingered since the majority of the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846 to come West. Emma Smith did not join the exodus, supposedly because of hard feelings between her and Brigham Young. Kennedy believes that impression is not well-founded and is based on misunderstandings of events during that troubled time.
The Young Family document, issued June 9, 2007, and shared during the Smith family's biennial reunion, asks for healing of the long-standing feelings. The deep friendship between Joseph and Brigham, the document says, is cause to mend fences. "It would be our earnest desire to rebuild that bridge of friendship between our two families that existed not so long ago," it says.
Kennedy said the statement caused an upwelling of emotion among those attending the meeting.
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KENNEDY'S LATEST undertaking is a movie about the life of Emma Smith. He joined Paul Savage and Steve Lee of Morning Dew Productions to produce the film "Emma Smith: My Story," now playing in local theaters. It portrays Emma's life from her childhood to the death of Joseph in 1844 at the hands of a mob.
Emma faithfully endured the persecutions that dogged her husband and his followers before the church was founded in 1830 and for decades afterward until the Saints finally moved west to escape their enemies. She was intimately involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and served as first president of the Relief Society when it was created in 1842.
The purpose of the movie, Kennedy said, was "to counter negative impressions about Emma. We're trying to counter misperceptions about her and mend fences with those who think we don't like Emma."
He believes the movie is doing well. "No one gets up to leave," he said.
Kennedy agrees with Elder Ballard, who said, "No women gave greater strength to the church in the early days than did Emma Hale, Jerusha Barden and Mary Fielding Smith ... Emma stands more notable a character in the history of the church than any other person."
Ultimately, Kennedy believes the movie may become one of the church historical productions that are shown in visitors centers and other church-related settings. In June, he and others will go to Independence, Mo., to present the movie to members of the Community of Christ, he said. All of Joseph's known descendants will be invited.
"We expect there will be significant interest among the membership of the family organization," he said.
Proceeds from the movie will be used to further the effort to build links among the family members, he said.