The Ministry of Joseph F. Smith
“The Ministry of Joseph F. Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, xi
Joseph F. Smith was the sixth President of the Church and the last President to have personally known the Prophet Joseph Smith. “My childhood and youth were spent in wandering with the people of God, in suffering with them and in rejoicing with them. My whole life has been identified with this people,” he said. 1 He sought earnestly to know God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and to serve them with whole-souled devotion. Blessed with a profound understanding of the gospel, he was able to lead his people in the principles of eternal truth and to steady the Church through attacks from opponents during the early years of the 20th century. He desired to be “a peacemaker, a preacher of righteousness,” 2 and he vigorously taught obedience, witnessing from his own experience that “all who will yield obedience to the promptings of the Spirit … will get a clearer, a more expansive, and a more direct and conclusive knowledge of God’s truths than anyone else can obtain.” 3
A childhood nurtured by faith.
The first child of Mary Fielding and Hyrum Smith, Joseph F. Smith was born on 13 November 1838 in Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri, in the midst of persecution and poverty. Two weeks earlier, his father had been taken prisoner by a mob and unjustly incarcerated. For four long months, Hyrum Smith, his brother the Prophet Joseph Smith, and others suffered privation in Liberty Jail. Mary felt that her husband had been cruelly removed from her “at a time when I needed … the kindest care and attention of such a friend, instead of which, the care of a large family was suddenly and unexpectedly left upon myself.” A convert to the Church from Canada, she had married Hyrum Smith following the death of his first wife, Jerusha, and she was caring for the five Smith children at the time “my dear little Joseph F. was added to the number.” 4
When the Saints were driven from Missouri during the winter of 1838–39, Joseph F. was a babe in arms. His father was still in prison, and his mother was severely ill and “had to be removed more than two hundred miles, chiefly on [her] bed.” 5 Mary’s sister, Mercy Fielding Thompson, nursed and cared for Joseph F. along with her own infant daughter. The Saints found refuge in Illinois, and young Joseph F. spent most of his first eight years in Nauvoo, the city the Saints built up on the banks of the Mississippi River. There, within the circle of the Smith family and the community of Saints, he was nurtured in the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I was instructed to believe in the divinity of the mission of Jesus Christ,” he later recalled. “I was taught it from my father, from the Prophet Joseph Smith, through my mother … and all my boyhood days and all my years in the world I have clung to that belief.” 6
Joseph F.’s father, Hyrum, had helped the Prophet Joseph advance the work of the Restoration since the organization of the Church, and even earlier when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon. The Prophet relied heavily upon his older brother Hyrum, especially in Nauvoo where Hyrum was called by revelation both as Church Patriarch and as Assistant President. Hyrum, the Prophet said, possessed “the mildness of a lamb, and the integrity of Job, and in short, the meekness and humility of Christ.” 7
Like his father, Joseph F. developed great love for and loyalty to the Prophet Joseph Smith. In later years, he often shared precious childhood memories of his uncle and constantly testified of his calling as the Prophet of the Restoration: “O, he was full of joy; he was full of gladness; he was full of love. … And while he could play with children and amuse himself at simple, innocent games among men, he also communed with the Father and the Son and spoke with angels, and they visited him, and conferred blessings and gifts and keys of power upon him.” 8
Joseph F. was not yet six years old when his uncle Joseph and his father, Hyrum, laid down their lives for the kingdom of God. They were assassinated on 27 June 1844 by a violent mob. Nauvoo always evoked for him “sacred memories of the past, made doubly and at the same time Dear and dreadful, by the Sacred resting place of my Fathers Dust, and the Dreadful Scenes that once, (and to my memory Clear as day) brought gloom and Horror upon the honest world and filled 10 thousand Hearts with grief and woe!” 9
Following the death of Hyrum, Mary and her sister, Mercy, also a widow, worked together to care for a large family and prepare to join the Saints in moving West. Joseph F. Smith recalled that their preparations were cut short in the fall of 1846 when threatening mobs compelled them to ferry “in an open flat boat, across the Mississippi river into Iowa, where we camped under the trees and listened to the bombardment of the city. We had left our comfortable home with all the furniture remaining in the house, together with all our earthly possessions, with no hope or thought of ever seeing them again.” 10 His mother repeatedly assured her children, “The Lord will open the way,” 11 and the strength of her conviction nourished their own faith. “We were not far away when we heard the cannonade on the other side of the river,” President Smith remembered, “but I felt just as certain in my mind then—as certain as a child could feel—that all was right, that the Lord’s hand was in it, as I do today.” 12
As Joseph F. Smith journeyed westward with his family, he observed his mother meet challenge after challenge with faith. When her company captain unkindly insisted that the widow would be a burden to the whole company, she let him know that she would do her part and make her way, and even arrive in the valley before he did. And ultimately, she did! As the family’s herd boy, Joseph F. was keenly aware of the importance of the family’s precious cattle, so he never forgot how once through fervent prayer his mother located a lost team. Later, he recalled, she prayed for oxen who had “laid down in the yoke as if poisoned” that they might arise and move forward, and “to the astonishment of all who saw,” they “got up and we drove along.” 13
Joseph F. drove one of the family’s ox teams into the Salt Lake Valley on 23 September 1848. He was nine years old. The Smiths settled on land south of Salt Lake City at Millcreek, and there young Joseph F. toiled, he recalled, as “teamster, herd-boy, plow-boy, irrigator, harvester, with scythe or cradle, wood-hauler, thresher, winnower … [and] general roustabout.” 14 The family lived simply in a small cabin, but President Smith later commented, “We were no worse off than thousands of others, and not so bad off as many.” 15 He learned to work hard and do his duty, to live without luxuries, to praise God, and to pay tithing on everything the family raised.
Joseph F. Smith forever cherished his mother’s labor and sacrifice, her matchless love and faith. He was devastated when, following two months of illness, she died at age 51. “After my mother’s death there followed 18 months—from Sept 21st, 1852 to April, 1854 of perilous times for me,” he later wrote a childhood friend. “I was almost like a comet or fiery meteor, without attraction or gravitation to keep me balanced or guide me within reasonable bounds.” “Fatherless & motherless” at age 13, he recalled, he was “not altogether friendless.” 16 His “ever-to-be-loved and remembered Aunt Mercy R. Thompson” 17 continued to nurture him and he never forgot the solicitude of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and George A. Smith, his father’s cousin. These were men, Joseph F. declared, “whom I learned to love as I loved my father, because of their integrity and love of the Truth.” 18
Called to serve in Hawaii.
When the First Presidency announced at the April 1854 general conference that Joseph F. was called to join a group of missionaries soon to depart, he exercised the faith he had garnered through his childhood and “cheerfully responded” to the call. He later gratefully reflected, “My four years mission to the Sandwich Islands restored my equilibrium, and fixed the laws and metes and bounds which have governed my subsequent life.” 19
Elder Joseph F. Smith arrived at Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) on 27 September 1854, about six weeks before his 16th birthday. Assigned to the island of Maui, he was soon left alone at Kula to live among the people and learn their language and culture. The young elder “sought earnestly the gift of tongues,” he remembered, “and by this gift and by study, in a hundred days after landing upon those islands I could talk to the people in their language as I now talk to you in my native tongue.” 20 Extraordinary fluency in the language enabled him to personally minister to the Hawaiian people.
Young though he was, Elder Smith was appointed to preside on the island of Maui, then at Hilo on the island of Hawaii, and later on the island of Molokai. On Molokai, when he contracted a severe fever and was seriously ill for three months, a dear sister, Ma Mahuhii, attended him as lovingly as though he were her own son. She never forgot him, nor he her, and they greeted one another with deep affection whenever they met in later years. “The kindness manifested towards me by many of the good native people of Hawaii” 21 was a blessed remembrance for him.
Elder Joseph F. Smith left Hawaii in October 1857 and accepted the increasing responsibilities President Brigham Young assigned to him. He served a mission to England (1860–63) and a second mission to Hawaii (1864). After his return to Salt Lake City late in 1864, he was employed in the Church Historian’s Office, working under the guidance of Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Service in the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency.
Then in 1866, at the direction of President Young, 28-year-old Joseph F. Smith was ordained an Apostle and called as a Counselor to the First Presidency. He honored President Young as the man “raised up and sustained by the power of Almighty God to continue the mission of [the Prophet] Joseph and to accomplish the work that he laid out during his lifetime.” 22 Joseph F. Smith desired with his whole soul to help move forward that “great and glorious work.” 23 He taught, “You have embraced the gospel for yourselves, then go and do your whole duty, not by halves, or in part, but your full duty.” 24 This is the way to promote “the interests of Zion and the establishment of her cause in the earth.” 25 In addition to other responsibilities as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he served two terms as president of the European Mission (1874–75; 1877).
Although Joseph F. Smith’s formal schooling was limited, he mastered a large vocabulary and learned to speak with power and persuasion. On 24 June 1866, he spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and, as Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve recorded, “spoke in the Afternoon 1 Hour 15 minutes & the power of God was upon him & he manifested the same spirit that was upon his Uncle Joseph Smith the Prophet & his Father Hyrum Smith.” 26 Elder Joseph F. Smith became widely known for the scope and power of his sermons; he desired to teach in accord with the Holy Spirit “to the understanding of those who hear me.” 27 It is not “the faultless sentence so much as the spirit accompanying the speaker that awakens life and light in the soul,” he taught. 28 “I always tried to make my hearers feel that I and my associates were peacemakers, and lovers of peace and good will, that our mission was to save, and not destroy, to build up and not tear down,” he once wrote a missionary son. 29
From the death of President Brigham Young in 1877 to the time Joseph F. Smith was sustained as President of the Church in 1901, he labored continually to awaken life and light in the souls of the Saints and establish peace and goodwill. During those 24 years, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow each served as President of the Church, and Joseph F. Smith was called as a Counselor in each successive First Presidency. It was a time when Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices were widely misunderstood, and during the 1880s, opponents waged harsh legal battles against the Church and its members. “They do not want us to be, religiously or otherwise, a separate and distinct people from the rest of the world. They want us to become identified and mixed up with the rest of the world, to become like them, thereby thwarting the purposes of God,” President Smith explained. 30
Nevertheless, President Smith beseeched Church members to love and forgive their enemies. “When we forget the object of our calling and step out of the path of duty to return blow for blow, to inflict evil for evil, to persecute because we may be persecuted, we forget the injunctions of the Lord and the covenants we have made with God to keep His commandments,” he taught. 31 He reminded discouraged Saints of God’s assurance that the destiny of the Church is “onward and upward until the purposes of God concerning this great latter-day work are consummated.” 32
Joseph F. Smith drew very close to those with whom he served. “When I experience the expressions of confidence and love of my brethren and sisters whom I love, it goes directly to my heart,” he said. 33 Of all his associations, he prized most his ties to his beloved family. To be a husband and father was for him the greatest of callings. He loved to be at home, to teach his children, to tell them stories, to sing and play and laugh with them. When away on assignments, he longed for his loved ones. In Hawaii, on 1 April 1885, he wrote in his journal: “There is a strong east wind blowing which, in a colder clime, would be wintry and harsh. Is it blowing gently or unkindly upon my loved ones? Are they warm or cold? … Are they hungry or fed? In the midst of friends or foes, fretted or peaceful? Peace, be still!” 34 His son Joseph Fielding Smith recalled the precious times he spent by his father’s side “discussing principles of the gospel and receiving instruction as only he could give it. In this way the foundation for my own knowledge was laid in truth, so that I too can say I know that my Redeemer lives, and that Joseph Smith is, was, and always will be a prophet of the living God.” 35
He constantly tended to the temporal and spiritual needs of his family and made his presence felt whether he was at home or away. In notes, letters, and poems, he expressed his abiding affection for his loved ones. “My Dear Companion,” he wrote to his wife on her 39th birthday, “I think better of you, prize you higher, you are nearer to me and I love you more today than I did … twenty years ago. Every hour, week, month and year, strengthens the bond of our union and each child cements it with an eternal seal.” 36
President Smith had great love for the temple and its ordinances that made possible the eternal union of families. “Who are there besides the Latter-day Saints who contemplate the thought that beyond the grave we will continue in the family organization?” 37 On 6 April 1853, at age 14, he had witnessed the laying of the cornerstones for the Salt Lake Temple, and on 6 April 1892, at age 53, he offered the prayer for the laying of the temple’s capstone. 38 The following year, on 6 April 1893, President Wilford Woodruff dedicated the magnificent structure, the fourth temple in Utah. Speaking at the dedicatory services, President Smith declared: “This is the sixth temple [including the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples], but it is not the end.” 39 As Church President, he would dedicate sites for the temple at Cardston, Canada (27 July 1913) and the temple at Laie, Hawaii (1 June 1915).
Ministry as President of the Church.
On 17 October 1901, a week after the death of President Lorenzo Snow, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles ordained and set apart Joseph F. Smith as the sixth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He would serve as President for 17 years, from 1901 to 1918. In his first address to the Saints as Church President, he declared: “It is our privilege to live nearer to the Lord, if we will, than we have ever done, that we may enjoy a greater outpouring of His Spirit than we have ever enjoyed, and that we may advance faster, grow in the knowledge of the truth more rapidly, and become more thoroughly established in the faith. All this, however, will depend upon the increased faithfulness of the people.” 40 His personal visiting among the Saints, his efforts to strengthen the fellowship and teaching in local wards, his own tireless preaching of “the principles of eternal truth” were all means of exalting “righteousness, purity and holiness in the hearts of the people.” 41 He knew that only a righteous, pure, and holy people could assist the Savior in bringing forth “the sanctification of the earth and the salvation of the human family.” 42
Church membership nearly doubled during President Smith’s administration, from 278,645 in 1901 to 495,962 in 1918. Though the majority of members still lived in the western United States, President Smith felt a strong connection with members in many nations. He visited Europe in 1906, the first President of the Church to do so while in office, returned there in 1910, and made visits to Saints in Canada and the Hawaiian Islands. He and his Counselors in the First Presidency counseled members to be “faithful and true in their allegiance to their governments, and to be good citizens,” 43 and to “remain in their native lands and form congregations of a permanent character.” 44 Members of the Church were no longer encouraged to move to Utah to gather with the Saints.
The first generation of Saints had gathered to Zion by geographically separating themselves from the world in order to forge unity and spiritual strength. President Smith emphasized for subsequent generations the importance of living peaceably in the midst of the world while maintaining the legacy of unity and spiritual strength made possible through priesthood order and ordinances.
President Smith spoke and wrote at great length about the incomparable power of the priesthood and strove to help all members understand its significance. At the time Joseph F. Smith was sustained as Church President, the meeting schedules, lessons, and effectiveness of priesthood quorums varied from ward to ward. But President Smith anticipated the day “when every council of the Priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will understand its duty; will assume its own responsibility, will magnify its calling, and fill its place in the Church.” 45 In the April 1908 general conference, President Smith announced that new efforts were under way “for the benefit and advancement of those who are associated with the various quorums of the Priesthood.” 46
The quorums of the Aaronic Priesthood were of particular concern to him. “We should look after our boys who have been ordained Deacons, Teachers, and Priests in the Church,” he advised. 47 Over the next few years bishops provided young priesthood holders with important assignments, many of which are now standard practice. Both Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood quorums were strengthened as regular weekly, year-round priesthood meetings were firmly established and a central Church committee issued uniform courses of study for the quorums.
President Smith placed great emphasis on home teaching. “I don’t know of any duty that is more sacred, or more necessary, if it is carried out as it should be, than the duties of the teachers who visit the homes of the people, who pray with them, who admonish them to virtue and honor, to unity, to love, and to faith in and fidelity to the cause of Zion,” he said. 48 To further strengthen the families of the Church, in 1915 he and his Counselors in the First Presidency introduced a weekly home evening program to the Church, urging parents to use the time to instruct their children in the word of God.
This was also a period of significant advancement in the auxiliary organizations. The general boards of the Sunday School, the organizations for the young men and young women, and the Primary had begun publishing uniform courses of study. Their lessons, President Smith observed, were leading young members “along into greater experiences and better understanding of the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” 49 To address the challenge of increasing leisure time for youth, the Boy Scout program was adopted for young men and a new Beehive program was developed for young women. The Relief Society, which since 1902 had encouraged stakes to write lessons for sisters, began publishing uniform lessons in 1914 and special messages for visiting teachers in 1916. These innovations became part of the new Relief Society Magazine and better equipped Relief Society women “to look after the spiritual, mental and moral welfare of the mothers and daughters in Zion.” 50 For President Smith, it was vital that the auxiliaries work in harmony with priesthood authorities to teach the gospel and strengthen bonds of fellowship among members. “Thus we pull all together a strong pull, a long pull for the establishment of the Church.” 51
One of the greatest challenges Joseph F. Smith faced was dealing with misunderstandings and persecutions directed toward the Church. However, he declared that efforts by detractors “have but been the means, indirectly, of forwarding the work in the world. They have called the attention of the world toward us, and that is just what we want. … We want the world to become acquainted with us. We want them to learn our doctrine, to understand our faith, our purposes, and the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” 52
Gradually, President Smith’s hopes began to be realized and the Church received greater respect in the United States and abroad. In order to provide tourists to Salt Lake City with accurate information about Church beliefs and history, the Church established its first visitors’ center on Temple Square in 1902. During the first year of operation, the 25 volunteers at the Bureau of Information and Church Literature were overwhelmed with more than 150,000 visitors. By 1904, the bureau required more workers and a larger building. In 1911 the Tabernacle Choir presented highly praised concerts in 25 cities in the eastern and midwestern United States, including a special concert at the White House for the president of the United States and guests.
“The Lord will all the more exalt and magnify us before the world and make us to assume our real position and standing in the midst of the earth,” President Smith promised, in proportion to members’ ”increased faithfulness” and willingness to become “more thoroughly established in the faith.” 53 He therefore continually exhorted Latter-day Saints to become more deeply rooted in their own history and doctrine. President Smith initiated republication of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church and supported the collection of pioneer diaries and manuscripts for the Church Archives. He also authorized Church officials to purchase historic sites sacred to Latter-day Saints, including Carthage Jail in Illinois, where the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred in 1844 (1903); part of the temple site at Independence, Missouri (1904); the Vermont farm where Joseph Smith was born in 1805 (1905); and the farm of Joseph Smith Sr. in Manchester, New York, site of the grove where the Prophet first beheld the Father and the Son (1907). He testified, “There is something hallowed about those places, to me and to all, I think, who have accepted the divine mission of Joseph Smith, the Prophet.” 54
President Joseph F. Smith taught Latter-day Saints to honor the Prophet for “lifting the veil of eternity as it were from before their eyes.” 55 Likewise, President Smith himself sought to comprehend and teach the expansive truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His letters to family and friends, his editorials and responses to questions in Church magazines, and his sermons were all important occasions to expound doctrine. When he and his Counselors in the First Presidency felt that essential doctrines might be misunderstood by Church members or others, they composed and published clarifying explanations. “The Origin of Man” (November 1909) 56 and “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve” (June 1916) 57 became important tools for teaching Latter-day Saints the true nature of our association with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
“I have endeavored from my youth up … to be a peacemaker, a preacher of righteousness, and not only to preach righteousness by word, but by example,” 58 President Smith said. From the age of 15 until his death at age 80, he delivered hundreds of gospel talks and discourses to help Saints understand and live the teachings of Jesus Christ. Speaking of his ability to instruct, Charles W. Nibley declared, “As a preacher of righteousness who would compare with him? He was the greatest that I ever heard—strong, powerful, clear, appealing. It was marvelous how the words of living light and fire flowed from him.” 59
Joseph F. Smith rejoiced when Church members heeded his warnings and exhortations as a prophet of God. The willingness of the Saints to move forward in “righteousness, purity and holiness” was of the utmost importance to him. 60 He led the way with his own humility and teachability. “I am only a child, I am only learning,” he said in 1916. “I sincerely hope that as I learn little by little, line upon line and precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, day by day, and month by month, and year by year, that there will come a time when I shall have learned indeed the truth and shall know it as God knows it and be saved and exalted in His presence.” 61 Always respected for his boldness and certitude, he was revered especially for his compassion. Mrs. Koleka, one of his dear Hawaiian associates, praised him as “the servant of the Most High God, the man of open heart filled with love.” 62 He had learned “not only to preach righteousness by word, but by example,” 63 by earnestly seeking to “become conformed to the likeness and image of Jesus Christ.” 64
During the last few months of his life, President Smith felt a particular susceptibility to the Spirit. “I may have physical ailments, but it appears to me that my spiritual status not only remains steadfast as in times past, but is developing, growing,” 65 he said in April 1918. Six months later, on 3 October 1918, as he sat in his room pondering the scriptures and “reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world,” 66 he received a marvelous manifestation concerning the Savior’s visit to the dead while His body was in the tomb. The revelation, later called the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead and canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 138, is a fitting capstone to the life of a prophet who preached unceasingly the importance of bringing to all of God’s children the plan of life and salvation.
The glory of God, the divine origin of man and his dependence upon God, the importance of obedience and holy ordinances, loving gratitude, and faithful devotion—these were themes President Smith wove together again and again. Rarely did he address a single gospel principle in isolation from the whole plan of life and salvation. He could preach the gospel in its fulness in a single sermon, sometimes in a single sentence, focusing always on the importance of knowing God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. “It is through the love that we have for Them, and through our wish to live in harmony with Their requirements and to become like Them, that we can love one another, and that we can have more pleasure in doing good than we ever could have in doing evil.” 67
8. In Brian H. Stuy, comp, Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 5 vols. (1987–92), 5:29.
9. Joseph F. Smith’s Journal, Leeds, 13 Apr. 1861, holograph, 5; Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
13. Jos. F. Smith’s Journal, 18; spelling modernized; Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
14. “Editor’s Table—In Memoriam, Joseph Fielding Smith (1838–1918),” Improvement Era, Jan. 1919, 266.
16. Joseph F. Smith to Samuel L. Adams, 11 May 1888, Truth and Courage: Joseph F. Smith Letters, ed. Joseph Fielding McConkie, 2.
18. In James R. Clark, comp, Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (1965–75), 5:92.
26. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 24 June 1866, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; spelling modernized.
35. Quoted in Bryant S. Hinckley, “Greatness in Men: Joseph Fielding Smith,” Improvement Era, June 1932, 459.
57. “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve,” Improvement Era, Aug. 1916, 934–42.