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DNA Helps Solve a Historical Question about Joseph Smith

Readers may be interested in a recently published peer-reviewed study appearing in Forensic Science International: Genetics, the journal of the International Society for Forensic Genetics. The article, entitled “Resolving a 150-year-old paternity case in Mormon history using DTC autosomal DNA testing of distant relatives,” examines the oft-repeated claim that Joseph Smith, Jr., was the biological father of Josephine Lyon. From the abstract:

In the current study, 56 individuals, mostly direct descendants of Joseph Smith Jr. and Josephine Lyon, had their autosomal DNA tested to verify Josephine’s biological paternity. Nearly 600,000 autosomal SNPs from each subject were typed and detailed genealogical data were compiled. The absence of shared DNA between Josephine’s grandson and Joseph Smith Jr.’s five great-grandchildren together with various amounts of autosomal DNA shared by the same individual with four other relatives of Windsor Lyon is a clear indication that Josephine was not related to the Smith, but to the Lyon’s family. These inferences were also verified using kinship analyses and likelihood ratio calculations.

In doing the study, the authors (Ugo A. Perego, Martin Bodner, Alessandro Raveane, Scott R. Woodward, Francesco Montnaro, Walther Parson, and Alessandro Achilli) apply cutting-edge forensic genetics to solve the mystery. The highlights of the study are notable:

  • We propose the resolution of a 150-year old alleged paternity using autosomal DNA data collected from 56 living descendants.
  • This study deals with the posterity of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of Mormonism, and with the practice of plural marriage.
  • This is a rare case of a possible polyandric relationship, where one woman is married to more than one man at the same time.
  • We have determined portions of the genetic profile of Joseph Smith by genotyping the autosomal genome of his living posterity.
  • We have also sequenced the entire mitochondrial DNA from a descendant of Katherine Smith, one of Joseph Smith Jr’s sisters.

When it comes to those who assert that Josephine is evidence that Joseph fathered children by his plural wives, the study concludes “it appears that Josephine did not share a biological tie with the founder of Mormonism and that perhaps what Sylvia Sessions told her daughter would mean something other than the biological relationship many historians have perceived.” Barring any additional scientific information, the study would seem to provide a definitive conclusion to the paternity claims.

The study will appear in FSI: Genetics 42 (September 2019), 1-7, but is fully available online now.

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