Smith reunions are usually held in places like Nauvoo, Ill., Kirtland, Ohio, and other towns important in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's a real sacred and unique event," said Derek Beck, of Kuna, Idaho, attending his first reunion with his four young children. "It gives us an opportunity to discuss the Smith family and what they have gone through and what they did to help the work of the church in these latter days."
Like many attendees, Beck descended from Joseph Jr.'s other brother and early church leader Hyrum, whose own son Joseph F. Smith fathered 43 children. The two brothers died in 1844 at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Ill. The murders helped spur the church's migration west and eventual settlement in Utah under Brigham Young's leadership.
Joseph Jr. had appointed his father the church's presiding patriarch not long before his 1840 death in a log cabin built for him and Lucy in Nauvoo, Ill. Lucy did not join the westward exodus and remained in Nauvoo until her death in 1856. The cabin site is the subject of a new archaeological excavation, called IDigNauvoo. Researchers hope to learn more about the couple who played a key role in the birth of the LDS faith.
This year's gathering of almost 900 is the biggest since the Smith reunions began in 1972.
"We're hoping for a world record, but that would take 2,600. Eventually we'll get there," said Frances Orton, the reunion coordinator who lives in Provo. Setting the record is an easy possibility since the Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family Association regularly communicates with 5,000 Smith descendants around the nation. The Smiths, who had 11 children, farmed in New York and Vermont during a period in American history marked by fervent religious revival.
Association officials believe there are 40,000 to 50,000 living descendants, and the association actively seeks them out.
"As we find them, our function is to help them understand what our family values are," said Jared Glade, a volunteer from Syracuse who handles the organization's websites. "They are intangible things, like caring about your family. One term they use is religiosity. It's more than faith. Faith put into action."
Activities Saturday included "Joseph's Miracle Run" to raise money to endow a medical scholarship at Dartmouth College. The 1K kids' run commemorates the 200th anniversary of Joseph Jr.'s recovery from a serious infection, thanks to Nathan Smith, the doctor who founded Dartmouth's medical school.
"It's our way to give back to him and to honor his generosity and being ahead of his time," Glade said. At age 7, Joseph contracted typhoid fever that attacked his leg, and Dr. Smith treated the infection by surgically exposing the bone. Nathan Smith was not related to Joseph Sr. but one of his descendants, a Colorado physician, did attend the reunion.
The biennial gathering has been held in odd-numbered years, but it switches to even-numbered years in 2014, when it will be held in Independence, Mo. The reason for the switch is to time the 2020 gathering in Palmyra, N.Y., with the bicentennial of Joseph Jr.'s visions that gave rise to the LDS movement, according to Orton.