A lot of prominent United States men in the 18th and 19th centuries were extremely physical men. They were competitive in the sports of their days, including the martial arts that were practiced, such as boxing and wrestling.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were extremely proficient grapplers and practiced a form of submission wrestling that was common for men of the time. Several other 19th century presidents were wrestlers, including Grant, Garfield and Jackson. Friendly and not so friendly boxing matches were also common among men in the 19th century.
Another common physical sport was called the stick pull, some examples of which you can see here:
I mention this because by all accounts Joseph Smith was a relatively large and muscular man, and he had spent most of his youth working hard around the farm, so of course he would have done what other men of his day did, ie, engage in physical contests of one kind or another.
George Q. Cannon said of the prophet: “When he had achieved the prime of his manhood, he seemed to combine all attractions and excellencies. His Physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit. He was more than six feet in height, with [an] expansive chest an clean cut limbs—a staunch and graceful figure.” By all accounts, Joseph Smith was at least six feet tall and about 200 pounds, which would have been larger than average for the time.
In the article “Joseph Smith: The Prophet” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Richard L. Bushman and Dean C. Jessee said of the prophet: “It was not uncommon to see him involved in sports activities with the young and vigorous men of a community. He is known to have wrestled, pulled sticks, engaged in snowball fights, played ball, slid on ice with his children, played marbles, shot at a mark, and fished.”
There are numerous stories of Joseph Smith challenging other men to wrestle. And remember that in those days wrestling was not freestyle wrestling we see in high school or college. It involved manipulating limbs and fiercely competitive takedowns where competitors would throw each other around, much like modern-day jiu jitsu.
I quote from this article:
Major Joseph McGee, a resident of Gallatin, Missouri, specifically recalled a wrestling contest between the Prophet and a man by the name of John Brassfield which occurred sometime after the Prophet had moved to Missouri. Brassfield was “the champion wrestler of the country,” McGee reported, yet the Mormon leader won the bout handily, throwing Brassfield “the first two falls out of a match of three” (“Special Correspondence” 23). A Latter-day Saint by the name of Wandle Mace indicated he was about as strong a man as the Prophet, and remembered Joseph would constantly hound him, hoping he would eventually consent to a match. Frequently, when the two men would meet, Mace said, Joseph would shake his hands and “pull me to him for a wrestle,” but he declined the Prophet the tussle he requested (Mace 93).
…Joseph Smith was probably more competitive with challengers who could be considered his enemies and who had unfriendly or hostile attitudes toward the Latter-day Saints. One such incident occurred near the end of April 1839, after five months of confinement in Missouri’s jails, he and four fellow prisoners were conveyed from Liberty to Gallatin for their trial on the charge of treason against the state of Missouri. While on the hostile “gentile” community, once part of Mormon dominated Daviess County, the prisoners were handed over to a half-dozen of the strongest ruffians in the country. On this occasion, one of the guards, who had the reputation of being the champion wrestler in Daviess County, wanted to “try strength with the ‘Mormon’ Prophet,” having previously boasted that he could easily throw him. After such a long and unhealthy confinement during the most unseasonable time of the year, the Mormon leader was in no condition for any type of physical contest, and he exhausted himself and declined the invitation to wrestle on this occasion. However, after several solicitations by the guard, who promised not to get angry if by chance the prisoner was victor, the match was agreed to and a circle was formed. The Missourian made several attempts to secure a hold and hurl the Prophet from the ring, even resorting to trickery, but he was unsuccessful. Joseph then took the offensive, and on his first pass, picked the man up and threw him flat on his back into a pool of water, much to the delight of the other guards who ridiculed their comrade for suffering defeat. The humiliation was too much for the guard and he desired to resort to fist cuffs and to fight it out with the Mormon leader even though he had agreed he would not be insulted if thrown. Cooler heads prevailed and the other guards restrained him which brought an end to the encounter (Jenson 164–65; for a slightly different rendition of what appears to be the same incident, see Burnett 40–41).
As I consider my goals for 2023, which include a number of athletic goals, I like to ponder the fact that one of the greatest men ever, the Prophet Joseph Smith, was not that different than many of us, at least those of us who like to be physically active. I consider him an inspiration in every possible way.
Let’s have a great 2023 everybody!
Well, he did wrestle with the devil…
Running to the church to do nightly lockup showed me how out of shape I am. I have a slender build, sure, but I’m lacking in fitness. For context as to the running distance, I’m in Utah.
Thank you for the inspirational message to improve!