Highlights In The Life Of Joseph Fielding Smith
He was born 19 July 1876 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Joseph F. and Julina Lambson Smith.
He was baptized by his father (19 July 1884).
He received his patriarchal blessing, which stated that he would preside among the people (Jan. 1896).
He married Louie Emily Shurtliff (26 Apr. 1898; she died 30 Mar. 1908).
He served a mission to England (1899–1901).
He began working in the Church Historian’s Office (1901).
He became Assistant Church Historian (Apr. 1906).
He married Ethel Georgina Reynolds (2 Nov. 1908; she died 26 Aug. 1937).
He was ordained an Apostle by his father, President Joseph F. Smith (7 Apr. 1910).
He became Church Historian (1921).
His first book, Essentials in Church History, was published (1922).
He became president of the Genealogical Society (1934).
He married Jessie Ella Evans (12 Apr. 1938; she died 3 Aug. 1971).
He directed the evacuation of missionaries from Europe (1939).
He became president of the Salt Lake Temple (1945–49).
He was sustained as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (9 Apr. 1951).
He dedicated four countries for the preaching of the gospel (1955).
He became a counselor to President David O. McKay (29 Oct. 1965).
He became President of the Church (23 Jan. 1970).
He presided over the first area conference, in Manchester, England (27–29 Aug. 1971); he dedicated the Ogden Utah Temple (18 Jan. 1972); he dedicated the Provo Utah Temple (9 Feb. 1972); he died in Salt Lake City, Utah (2 July 1972).
Like Hannah, mother of the Old Testament prophet Samuel, Julina Lambson Smith greatly desired a son. Having given birth to three lovely daughters, she longed and prayed for a son. She promised the Lord that if He would so bless her she would do everything possible to see that the boy grew up to serve God and be a credit to his father, Joseph F. Smith, then a counselor in the First Presidency. On 19 July 1876, the Lord blessed the Smith home with a son who would receive his father’s name. “This was the child destined to follow most closely in the footsteps of his father—missionary, historian, apostle, scriptorian, theologian, counselor in the First Presidency, and finally Prophet of the Lord. The voice of the father was to become the voice of the son; jointly, their years in the apostleship would span in an unbroken chain more than a hundred years” (Joseph F. McConkie, True and Faithful: The Life Story of Joseph Fielding Smith , 9, 11).
In his youth, Joseph Fielding Smith drank of the bitter cup of persecution as federal marshals invaded polygamous homes in Utah searching for his father and other Church leaders. He recalled that they prowled around their home interrogating and terrorizing the women and children, blighting their lives, and precipitating a dark cloud of unhappiness and fear. In such gloomy circumstances, his father was forced into near continuous exile between Joseph Fielding’s eighth and fifteenth years. Thus, when people later expressed the thought that President Joseph Fielding Smith had a favored youth and, consequently, he ought to be a great man, he was constrained to admit that they did not understand all of the circumstances. His father was away from home during most of the formative years of Joseph Fielding’s youth because of difficulties with the United States government.
One result of those lonely, trying years was the development of an understanding and a courage in young Joseph Fielding that helped him become one of the latter-day Church’s most able defenders. Tried, tested, and found true and faithful seems to describe the life of this great servant of the living God.
In His Youth He Learned to Do What the Lord Wanted Him to Do
Joseph Fielding Smith was a boy who thought it his duty to walk through life with his hand in the hand of the Lord. Indeed, his desire to learn the will of the Lord in order that he could live it moved him to read the Book of Mormon twice by the time he was ten years old. When the ball team missed him, they could generally find him in the hayloft reading that book. He also read and memorized the Children’s Catechism (an early Church publication that explained the doctrines of the gospel) and Primary books. Natural and spontaneous, his appetite for learning properly whetted throughout his life, he became one of the greatest gospel scholars the Church has known.
He later explained: “From my earliest recollection, from the time I first could read, I have received more pleasure and greater satisfaction out of the study of the scriptures, and reading of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the work that has been accomplished for the salvation of men, than from anything else in all the world” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1930, 91).
He Had a Close Brush with Death
“Many of Joseph’s youthful hours were spent herding cows near the Jordan River [in Utah] and laboring with his brothers on the family farm in Taylorsville. On one occasion when he and his younger brother, George, were loading hay onto a wagon to take it from the field to the barn, Joseph had a close brush with death. They had stopped on a road by the canal to stack some bales and give the team a drink. Because they had a skittish horse, Joseph told George to stand by the head of the team and hold their bridles until he could climb up and take the reins. Instead, George went back and started up the binding rope. As he did so, the horses started with a sudden jerk and Joseph fell down between the horses on the doubletree.
“The thought, ‘Well, here’s my finish!’ flashed through his mind. But something turned the horses and they ran into the canal, while Joseph was thrown clear of their hoofs and the wheels of the wagon. When he got up, he gave George an honest appraisal of his feelings and then hurried home—shaken, but grateful to be in one piece. His father came out to meet him and wanted to know what difficulty he had encountered, having received a strong impression that his son was in some kind of danger” (McConkie, True and Faithful, 18).
He Helped His Mother
“When his mother returned from the Hawaiian Islands, Joseph was ten years old, and it was at that tender age that he began assisting her in her professional duties as a licensed midwife or obstetrician. Joseph’s job was that of stable boy and buggy driver. At all hours of the day or night, when the call came for his mother’s services, Joseph was to hitch up the faithful mare ‘Old Meg’ to the buggy and drive his mother to the home of the confinement case. Here he might wait while she delivered the baby, or, if his mother thought the wait would be too long, she would send him home with instructions on when to return for her. …
“In the daytime and summertime Joseph’s assignment was not too unpleasant a one for a ten-year-old youngster. But in the nighttime and wintertime it was very unpleasant. … Sometimes they traveled through rain, sleet or snow, or bitter cold wind, in a well ventilated buggy. And then upon reaching the house of the expectant mother, he had what often seemed an endless wait.
“‘Sometimes I nearly froze to death. I marveled that so many babies were born in the middle of the night, especially on cold winter nights. I fervently wished that mothers might time things a little better’” (Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. and John J. Stewart, The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith ,52–53).
“I Was Born with a Testimony”
Joseph Fielding Smith stated: “I was born with a testimony of the gospel. … I do not remember a time when I did not have full confidence in the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith and in the teachings and guidance of my parents” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 56).
“By nature, Joseph was more quiet and studious than his brothers. It was his habit to hurry with his chores so that he could go to his father’s library and study” (McConkie, True and Faithful, 18).
In a letter to a son on a mission, he wrote: “I remember that one thing I did from the time I learned to read and write was to study the gospel. I read and committed to memory the children’s catechism and primary books on the gospel. Later I read the History of the Church as recorded in the Millennial Star. I also read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, [the] Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants, and other literature which fell into my hands. … I learned at a very early day that God lives; he gave me a testimony when I was a child, and I have tried to be obedient always with some measure of success” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 4:vi).
He Was an Early Riser
Inspired by a disciplined father, Joseph Fielding Smith was an early riser, a practice that lasted his entire life and was his formula for getting things done. Even at the age of ninety-five “he was still his own best sermon on nonretirement. … He was up every morning well before 6 o’clock, and put in a heavy day’s work. It was a lifelong habit, and one that he also instilled in his children. ‘People die in bed,’ he cautioned them. ‘And so does ambition.’
“‘Somehow it seemed immoral to lie in bed after 6,’ recalls a son. ‘Of course, I only tried it once. Father saw to that’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3).
He Was a Hard Worker
“It was a late summer evening in Salt Lake City, in the year of 1894. Joseph Fielding Smith, 18 years of age, had just completed another day of heavy work as a cash boy in the wholesale grocery department in the basement of the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, at Main and South Temple Streets. He flexed his shoulders, took a deep breath, tried to stand up straight. It was not easy. The hours were long, the work was exhausting, and the pay was pitifully meager. ‘I worked like a work horse all day long and was tired out when night came, carrying sacks of flour and sacks of sugar and hams and bacons on my back. I weighed 150 pounds, but I thought nothing of picking up a 200-pound sack and putting it on my shoulders. I was a very foolish fellow, because ever since that time my shoulders have been just a little out of kilter. The right one got a little more “treatment” than the left.’
“But jobs were not easy to find and his family needed all the financial support it could get, from him and his brothers old enough to work. So Joseph felt fortunate to have this job despite the strenuous working conditions and low pay. The daily physical workout might even be good for him in the long run, if it did not kill him first.
“And now, as was his habit, he stopped by the candy counter and bought a sack of hardtack to take home to Mama and to his younger brothers and sisters. He found pleasure in seeing the little ones’ joy at this frequent treat” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 65–66).
He Was Married before He Served a Mission
When Joseph Fielding Smith was eighteen his family invited Louie Shurtliff, who was the same age, to live at their home while she attended the University of Utah. Louie’s father and President Joseph F. Smith had been friends since their boyhood days in Nauvoo. Joseph and Louie soon became close friends, sharing a love for learning and a devotion to the gospel. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love. They courted for three and a half years, during which time Louie attended college and Joseph Fielding worked for ZCMI. He later recalled, “When she finished and graduated from her school, … I did not permit her to go home and stay there, but I persuaded her to change her place of residence, and on the 26th day of April, 1898, we went to the Salt Lake Temple and were married for time and all eternity by my father, President Joseph F. Smith” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 75).
A year after their marriage, Joseph Fielding left his bride so he could serve a two-year mission in Great Britain. He was accompanied by his brother Joseph Richards, who had been called to serve in the same mission. Leaving for the mission field was not easy for Joseph. He wrote in his journal: “Saturday May 13, 1899: I went up town and purchased some articles to take with me on the way to England. Packed my trunk in the afternoon and got all ready to leave. At six o’clock told all the folks goodbye and left for the depot with feelings that I never felt before, because I was never away from home more than one month in my life, and to think of going away for two years or more causes very peculiar feelings to take possession of me” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 83).
Proselyting at that time in Great Britain was very difficult. There was much opposition and few receptive hearts. He worked hard during his service, however, each month handing out over 10,000 tracts and visiting about 4,000 homes. But he did not see the fruits of his labors in the form of baptisms. “During his two-year mission, Elder Smith did not convert and baptize a single person. He did confirm one member, but that was the full extent of his proselyting harvest” (Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith: Gospel Scholar, Prophet of God , 75).
His Father Expected Excellence
“Letters to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith … suggest the care with which President Joseph F. Smith taught his faithful and obedient son. On February 2, 1900 he wrote:
“‘The best school I ever attended is the school of experience. There are some things that seem difficult for me to learn. One thing is English orthography and I see you are a little like me in that regard. Now if I tell you a few words you nearly always spell wrong, the presumption is you will be more careful to spell them right in the future.’
“The father then lists such words as untill for until, proscribe for prescribe, greece for grease, shure for sure, shugar for sugar, and so on. …
“On March 8, 1900 the father advised:
“‘I scarcely need say to you to make short earnest prayers, short and sincere sermons, and write short letters, concise and to the point, and as often as you can. The difficulty with most people is they are too profuse, both in speaking and writing. We need concentration of mind and thought, and to boil things down. I am please[d] to note the improvement you are making.’ …
“Some advice in Joseph F.’s letter of February 20, 1901 contains advice good for all of us:
“‘Always take time to eat your meals and post your journal. I have had experience in these matters. A diary is almost worthless unless written daily. We cannot journalize correctly from memory. Keep your diary up’” (Leonard J. Arrington, “Joseph Fielding Smith: The training of a Prophet,” Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972, 7–8; italics added).
He Learned Much from His Father
“Joseph F. Smith was a master teacher who spent many hours responding to the questions of his son and seeing that he was properly founded in principles of truth. ‘Among my fondest memories,’ Joseph Fielding was later to say, ‘are the hours I have spent by his 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.’
“And what more fitting place to raise a prophet than the home of a prophet? His mother, Julina Lambson Smith, had been raised in the home of George A. Smith, a cousin and close associate of the Prophet Joseph Smith” (McConkie, True and Faithful, 12).
He Was a Defender of the Faith
Following his mission, Joseph Fielding Smith was hired to work in the Church Historian’s Office. This job led to his appointment in 1906 as an Assistant Church Historian. In this capacity he assisted President Anthon H. Lund, a counselor in the First Presidency and Church Historian, in the various activities of that office. One of his jobs was to gather information for the defense of Reed Smoot, a Utah Senator and Apostle whose right to a Senate seat was being challenged in Washington, D.C.
When Elder Smoot was exonerated, his defeated opponent became extremely bitter; and through a local newspaper he vented his wrath in the form of verbal abuses and slander that he heaped upon the Church and in particular upon the Church President, Joseph F. Smith. So well did young Joseph Fielding present the truth that the issues raised were virtually never in serious contention again.
He Was a Latter-day Scholar
In the preface to a compilation of Joseph Fielding Smith’s sermons and writings, his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “Joseph Fielding Smith is the leading gospel scholar and the greatest doctrinal teacher of this generation. Few men in this dispensation have approached him in gospel knowledge or surpassed him in spiritual insight. His is the faith and the knowledge of his father, President Joseph F. Smith, and his grandfather, the Patriarch Hyrum Smith” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], l:v).
He Found a New Wife and Mother for His Children
Joseph Fielding Smith’s beloved wife, Louie, became gravely ill during her third pregnancy. She suffered for two months before dying on 30 March 1908. “She and Joseph had been married only ten years, during two of which they were separated while Joseph served his mission. Louie was the mother of two daughters, Josephine, then five years of age, and Julina, two. She was a woman of ‘singular sweetness and strength of character,’ and the burden of her passing was great.
“The bereaved father closed down the home that he had built for his bride and moved his little family into the Beehive House where his mother and his sisters Julina and Emily could provide motherly love and care for his two little girls. The passing of their mother was particularly hard on two-year-old Julina, whose frequent sobbings for her mother would melt her father’s heart” (McConkie, True and Faithful, 32).
The months following Louie’s death were difficult and lonely. The young girls continued to sorrow and cry for their mother. Their father spent hours each night comforting and consoling them. Grandmothers and aunts did all they could to assist Joseph Fielding in caring for the children, but they needed a mother. After urging and counsel from both his father and father-in-law, Joseph Fielding began to prayerfully search for a wife who could also be a loving mother to his daughters. He found her in Ethel Georgina Reynolds, daughter of George Reynolds, a long-time member of the First Council of Seventy, and Amelia Jane Reynolds. They were married on 2 November 1908, in the Salt Lake Temple by President Joseph F. Smith.
He Was Called as an Apostle
“For an hour or more the Church Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles, meeting in the Salt Lake Temple in April, 1910, had discussed various men as possibilities to fill the vacancy in the council occasioned by the death of President John R. Winder on March 27, and the subsequent advancement of Apostle John Henry Smith to the presidency. But to every name suggested there was some exception taken. It seemed impossible to reach any unanimity of feeling in the matter. Finally President Joseph F. Smith retired to a room by himself and knelt in prayer for guidance. When he returned he somewhat hesitantly asked the 13 other brethren whether they would be willing to consider his son Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. for the position. He was reluctant to suggest it, he said, because his son Hyrum was already a member of the council and his son David was a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. Church members, he feared, would be disgruntled to have another of his sons appointed as a general authority. Nevertheless he felt inspired to offer Joseph’s name for their consideration. The other men seemed immediately receptive to the suggestion and sustained President Smith in it” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 174).
Others Knew That He Would Be Called as an Apostle
“From Apostle-Senator Reed Smoot in Washington, D.C. came the telegram, ‘God bless you in your apostleship. Be true and loyal to your leader.’ And Joseph [Fielding Smith] notes, ‘This I shall try always to do. I have also received a number of letters, telegrams, etc., from friends who rejoice at my great blessing, which feeling I believe to be quite universal although there are those who are not pleased. Elder Ben E. Rich, President of the Eastern States Mission … who has always been a friend to me, and one year ago predicted that I should be called to this great responsibility, was one of the first to give me the hand of fellowship and his blessing, faith and constant prayers. May the Lord bless him. …
“‘President Francis M. Lyman instructed me in the duties of my calling and told me that I had been called by revelation from the Lord. He said he had watched me for a number of years and while on the trip to Vermont [at the time of the dedication of the Joseph Smith Memorial Monument in December, 1905], both going and coming and while there, he had watched me and felt at that time in his heart that I should some day be an apostle, which prediction has been made by several others, all of which predictions I received lightly and without thought of their fulfillment.’
“Three years later, in a second patriarchal blessing, this one from Patriarch Joseph D. Smith at Scipio, Millard County, Joseph Fielding was told, ‘… you were called and ordained before you came in the flesh, as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ to represent his work in the earth’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 178–79, 181).
“Years later Heber J. Grant, who by then was president of the Church and who was present in the council meeting in the temple the day Joseph was chosen in 1910, assured a group of the correctness of the decision: It was at a Smith family reunion. President Grant pointed to Joseph Fielding and said, ‘That man was called by direct revelation of God. I am a witness to that fact’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 177).
His ordination to the apostleship was one that he took seriously as a dedicated servant of the Lord. “Ordained to the special calling of preaching repentance to the people, he accepted the responsibility and remained true to this commission all the days of his life. Because of his uncompromising defense of the Lord’s laws and principles, he was considered by many to be austere. [He] never compromised with sin, but was quick to forgive and extend a hand of fellowship to a repentant sinner. In truth, no man had greater concern and love for each church member” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, vi).
His Wife Described Him
In 1932, Ethel Georgina Reynolds Smith gave the following description of her husband, Joseph Fielding Smith:
“You ask me to tell you of the man I know. I have often thought when he is gone people will say, ‘He is a very good man, sincere, orthodox, etc.’ They will speak of him as the public knows him; but the man they have in mind is very different from the man I know. The man I know is a kind, loving husband and father whose greatest ambition in life is to make his family happy, entirely forgetful of self in his efforts to do this. He is the man that lulls to sleep the fretful child, who tells bedtime stories to the little ones, who is never too tired or too busy to sit up late at night or to get up early in the morning to help the older children solve perplexing school problems. When illness comes the man I know watches tenderly over the afflicted one and waits upon him. It is their father for whom they cry, feeling his presence a panacea for all ills. It is his hands that bind up the wounds, his arms that give courage to the sufferer, his voice that remonstrates with them gently when they err, until it becomes their happiness to do the thing that will make him happy.
“The man I know is most gentle, and if he feels that he has been unjust to anyone the distance is never too far for him to go and, with loving words or kind deeds, erase the hurt. He welcomes gladly the young people to his home and is never happier than when discussing with them topics of the day—sports or whatever interests them most. He enjoys a good story and is quick to see the humor of a situation, to laugh and to be laughed at, always willing to join in any wholesome activity.
“The man I know is unselfish, uncomplaining, considerate, thoughtful, sympathetic, doing everything within his power to make life a supreme joy for his loved ones. That is the man I know” (quoted in Bryant S. Hinckley, “Joseph Fielding Smith,” Improvement Era, June 1932, 459).
Ethel was Joseph Fielding’s companion for over 28 years. Then, on 26 August 1937, she died. Death separated him from yet another wife. She had borne nine children and mothered eleven. She had also served for fifteen years as a member of the Relief Society General Board.
Jessie Evans Helped Add Much to His Zest for Living
“Before Ethel died she requested that Jessie Evans [a famed contralto soloist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir] be asked to sing at her funeral service. ‘If I should ever die before you,’ she told her husband one day, ‘I want you to have Jessie Evans sing at my funeral.’ At her death Joseph Fielding sent his brother-in-law William C. Patrick to Miss Evans to make the request. … She had kindly complied and sang at the service. Afterward Joseph Fielding sent her a note of appreciation” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 252).
Jessie Evans responded to the note and a friendship developed between them. Soon the friendship grew into courtship and on 12 April 1938, at the age of sixty-one, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith married Jessie Ella Evans in the Salt Lake Temple.
“When the Tabernacle Choir scheduled a tour to California in 1941, with Richard L. Evans as commentator, Joseph Fielding composed a hilarious letter to Evans charging him with the care and protection of Jessie on the trip: ‘You are hereby authorized, appointed, chosen, designated, named, commanded, assigned, ordained and otherwise notified, informed, advised and instructed, two wit: …’ the letter began, and several paragraphs of nonsense later, ‘To see that the said Mrs. Jessie Evans Smith, is permitted to travel in safety, comfort, ease, without molestation and that she is to be returned again to her happy home and loving husband and family in the beautiful and peaceful State of Utah and to her anxious and numerous kindred. …’
“Richard L. replied in part, ‘Your masterful document of August 15 has cost me a good deal of brow-wrinkling and excruciating concentration. I think without question it will go down in history with the Bill of Rights and the Magna Charta. The remarkable thing about it is, as my legal staff and I have studied it over, that it conveys to me no privileges that I did not already feel free to take and imposes on me no responsibilities that it was not already my pleasure and intention to assume. However, it is a good idea, as many men can testify, to have the consent of a husband before traveling two thousand miles with his wife.’ …
“Both Joseph Fielding and Jessie enjoyed a colorful cast iron plaque that hung on the kitchen wall of their apartment, stating, ‘Opinions expressed by the husband in this household are not necessarily those of the management.’ One time when she was assisting him in his office, when his secretary was on vacation, he tapped her on the shoulder as she sat at the typewriter, and said, ‘Remember, Mama dear, over here you are not the Speaker of the House!’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 260–61).
He Enjoyed Wholesome Humor
The members of the Church everywhere were well acquainted with this respected theologian, and they welcomed his clear, unmistakable commentary on the scriptures. But there was almost universal ignorance of Joseph Fielding Smith’s remarkably humorous nature. His innate humor was unaffected and inoffensive. It sprang naturally from real life experiences. One experience Joseph Fielding liked to relate about his younger days was about a mare named Junie. He said:
“Junie was one of the most intelligent animals I ever saw. She seemed almost human in her ability. I could not keep her locked in the barn because she would continually undo the strap on the door of her stall. I used to put the strap connected to the half-door of the stall over the top of the post, but she would simply lift it off with her nose and teeth. Then she would go out in the yard.
“There was a water tap in the yard used for filling the water trough for our animals. Junie would turn this on with her teeth and then leave the water running. My father would get after me because I couldn’t keep that horse in the barn. She never ran away; she just turned on the water and then walked around the yard or over the lawn or through the garden. In the middle of the night, I would hear the water running and then I would have to get up and shut it off and lock Junie up again.
“My father suggested that the horse seemed smarter than I was. One day he decided that he would lock her in so that she could not get out. He took the strap that usually looped over the top of the post and buckled it around the post and under a crossbar, and then he said, ‘Young lady, let’s see you get out of there now!’ My father and I left the barn and started to walk back to the house; and before we reached it, Junie was at our side, somewhat to my delight. I could not refrain from suggesting to Father that I was not the only one whose head compared unfavorably with the mare’s” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 53–54).
He Enjoyed an Active Lifestyle
Advancing years brought concern to Joseph Fielding Smith’s family as they saw no slackening in the pace of their beloved brother and father. One biographer wrote: “Even in advanced age Joseph Fielding Smith was one of the hardest working men I knew. ‘How do you manage to get so much done?’ I once asked him. ‘It’s in the bag,’ he said. ‘In the bag?’ I asked. He pointed to a lunch sack. ‘I’m a brown bagger.’ For years he carried a sack lunch to his office, so he could keep working through the noon hour. ‘That gives me an extra 300 hours per year.’ One day a sister of his called on him at the office and scolded him for not taking a nap after lunch. She cited by name half a dozen of his associates who had long done so. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘and where are they today? All dead!’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3–4).
He Was Actively Involved in Sports Past His Sixty-Fifth Year
Although he was an excellent swimmer, good at tennis and basketball, and enjoyed watching his sons play football, Joseph Fielding Smith’s favorite sport was handball. His son Reynolds reported that he and his brother Lewis played handball against their father, who held one hand behind his back while he “trounced” both of them.
Herbert B. Maw, a former governor of Utah who was twenty years younger than Joseph Fielding, shared an experience about a handball game with him: “I thought I would just take it easy on the old gentleman and not beat him too far. Imagine my chagrin when he gave me the trouncing of my life! I thought that I was a good handball player, but I was no competition for him at all” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 15).
He Enjoyed Flying
One biographer wrote of his experience finding out about Joseph Fielding Smith’s hobby of flying in jet planes “at an age when many men are tucked safely away in a nursing home absorbing liniment”:
“I remember my surprise one day when I called at his office in Salt Lake City. His secretary, Rubie Egbert, said, ‘Step to the window here and maybe you can see him.’ Curious, I walked to the window. But all that I could see was a jet streaking through the blue sky high above the Great Salt Lake. Its trail of white vapor clearly marked some steep climbs, loops, dives, rolls and turns. …
“‘You mean he’s in that plane?’ I asked incredulously.
“‘Oh yes, that’s him all right. He’s very fond of flying. Says it relaxes him. A friend in the National Guard calls him up and says, ‘How about a relaxing?’ and up they go. Once they get in the air he often takes over the controls. Flew down to Grand Canyon and back last week, 400 miles an hour!’
“I could not resist driving to the airport to be there when he landed. As the two-place T-Bird roared down the runway to a stop, from the rear cockpit, in suit and helmet, climbed this benign old gentleman, then about 80, smiling broadly. ‘That was wonderful!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s about as close to heaven as I can get just now.’
“At age 92 he was advanced in the National Guard to the honorary rank of brigadier-general. ‘But they still didn’t want me to fly alone.’ Later he limited his flying to commercial jetliners. … ‘The big planes are not so exciting as the T-Bird, but at my age it’s a real comfort to be able to move faster than sound,’ he said at 95” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 1–2).
Children Adored Him
Sensitive and understanding, Joseph Fielding Smith despised misery and suffering everywhere and did all in his power to alleviate it by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting those in need. A pillar of strength and encouragement to his family and the Church, he was loved universally. He loved little children and they adored him.
“After general conference in April 1970, when President Smith was sustained, a large crowd gathered at the door of the Tabernacle to get a glimpse of him.
“A small girl wriggled out of the crowd and made her way to the President. Soon she was in his arms for a big hug. Quickly a newspaper photographer snapped a picture, and the little girl disappeared back into the crowd.
“The picture appeared unidentified in the Church News. The picture was soon after identified by the child’s grandmother, Mrs. Milo Hobbs of Preston, Idaho, [in] a letter to President Smith.
“On her birthday, [four-year-old] Venus Hobbs of Torrence, California, received a surprise telephone call from President and Sister Smith, who were visiting that week in California. They sang ‘Happy Birthday’ over the phone to her. Venus was delighted at the song, and her parents were touched with tears to think the President of the church would call.
“The parents explained that Venus had been with two aunts at conference, but had slipped away. They feared that she was lost in the crowd. When she returned they asked, ‘How did you get lost?’
“‘I wasn’t lost,’ she said.
“‘Who found you?’ they asked.
“‘I was in the arms of the Prophet,’ she replied” (“Joy of Life, Activity and People,” Church News, 8 July 1972, 7).
Children everywhere recognized the great warmth and love that emanated from President Joseph Fielding Smith. They felt free to express their love for him openly and honestly. Everywhere he went he had time for children. They enjoyed his heartfelt hugs and basked in the security of his love.
A New President Was Sustained
During the April 1970 general conference, over two-and-a-half million members of the Church reverently sustained a newly called President of the Church for the first time in nearly nineteen years. At the age of ninety-three, President Joseph Fielding Smith was the oldest man to become the President of the Church.
Some had supposed that the Lord would choose a younger man. They wondered how President Smith could endure the pressures of administering the affairs of the emerging world Church. However, the vigorous profile of President Smith’s administration left no lingering question in the minds of the Saints with respect to that concern. Two “youthful” counselors were invited to match strides with this prophet—Harold B. Lee, age seventy-two, and N. Eldon Tanner, age seventy-three.
We Must Prepare for the Lord’s Coming
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught about the importance of being prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ:
“I was asked, not long ago, if I could tell when the Lord would come. I answered, Yes; and I answer, Yes, now. I know when he will come. He will come tomorrow. We have his word for it. Let me read it:
“‘Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.’ (Now there is a discourse sufficient on tithing.) ‘For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.’ [D&C 64:23–24.]
“So the Lord is coming, I say, tomorrow. Then let us be prepared. Elder Orson F. Whitney used to write about the Saturday Evening of Time. We are living in the Saturday Evening of Time. This is the 6th day now drawing to its close. When the Lord says it is today until his coming, that, I think, is what he has in mind, for he shall come in the morning of the Sabbath, or seventh day of the earth’s temporal existence, to inaugurate the millennial reign and to take his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords, to rule and reign upon the earth, as it is his right. [See D&C 77:12.]” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:1).
“I know that there are many, and even some among the Latter-day Saints, who are saying just as the Lord said they would say, ‘The Lord delayeth his coming.’ [D&C 45:26; 2 Peter 3:3–14.] One man said: ‘It is impossible for Jesus Christ to come inside of three or four hundred years.’ But I say unto you, Watch.
“I do not know when he is going to come. No man knows. Even the angels of heaven are in the dark in regard to that great truth. [See Matthew 24:36–37.] But this I know, that the signs that have been pointed out are here. The earth is full of calamity, of trouble. The hearts of men are failing them. We see the signs as we see the fig tree putting forth her leaves; and knowing this time is near, it behooves me and it behooves you, and all men upon the face of the earth, to pay heed to the words of Christ, to his apostles and watch, for we know not the day nor the hour. But I tell you this, it shall come as a thief in the night, when many of us will not be ready for it” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:52–53).
Christ Will Come in a Day of Great Wickedness
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that the Lord’s Second Coming would not be delayed by our unrighteousness:
“When we become ripe in iniquity, then the Lord will come. I get annoyed sometimes at some of our elders who when speaking say the Lord will come when we all become righteous enough to receive him. The Lord is not going to wait for us to get righteous. When he gets ready to come, he is going to come—when the cup of iniquity is full—and if we are not righteous then, it will be just too bad for us, for we will be classed among the ungodly, and we will be as stubble to be swept off the face of the earth, for the Lord says wickedness shall not stand.
“Do not think the Lord delays his coming, for he will come at the appointed time, not the time which I have heard some preach when the earth becomes righteous enough to receive him. I have heard some men in positions and places of trust in the Church preach this, men who are supposed to be acquainted with the word of the Lord, but they failed to comprehend the scriptures. Christ will come in the day of wickedness, when the earth is ripe in iniquity and prepared for the cleansing, and as the cleanser and purifier he will come, and all the wicked will be as stubble and will be consumed” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:3).
We Must Raise the Voice of Warning
President Smith taught: “There is no peace. Men’s hearts are failing them. Greed has the uppermost place in the hearts of men. Evil is made manifest on every side, and people are combining for their own selfish interests. Because of this I was glad to hear the warning voice raised by our beloved President [Heber J. Grant] and by his counselors, … and by others of the brethren who have spoken; for I think this should be a time of warning, not only to the Latter-day Saints, but to all the world. We owe it to the world to raise a voice of warning, and especially to the members of the Church” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:49).
The Worldly Ignore the Warnings
“President Joseph Fielding Smith taught how world conditions might be made better if people would listen to the warnings of the Lord:
“The Lord intends that men shall be happy; that is his purpose. But men refuse to be happy and make themselves miserable, because they think their ways are better than God’s ways, and because of selfishness, greed, and the wickedness that is in their hearts; and that is the trouble with us today. The leaders of our nation are struggling and trying to do something to better conditions. I can tell you in a few words just how it can be done, and it is not going to be done by legislation—it is not going to be done by pouring money out upon the people.
“Temporary relief is not going to better the situation, because we will still be struggling and fighting and contending with crime, with disease, with plagues, and with pestilence, with the whirlwinds, and with the dust storms, and with the earthquakes and everything else coming upon the face of the earth, according to the predictions of the prophets—all because men will not heed the warning voice.
“When we quit loving money and get the love of gold out of our hearts and the greed and selfishness, and learn to love the Lord, our God, with all our hearts, and our neighbor as ourselves, and get on our knees and learn to pray and repent of our sins, we will have prosperity, we will have peace, we will have contentment. But the people will not repent no matter what warning is made, no matter how much their attention is called to these things; the people will not repent because their hearts are set upon evil, and destruction awaits them” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:35–36).
The Saints Can Escape Only through Obedience
President Smith taught that obedience can protect us from the plagues of the last days:
“In this day of prosperity, let us be humble and remember the Lord and keep his commandments and feel that the dangers before us are far greater than they are in the days of trial and tribulation. Do not think for a moment that the days of trial are over. They are not. If we keep the commandments of the Lord, we shall prosper, we shall be blessed; the plagues, the calamities that have been promised will be poured out upon the peoples of the earth, and we shall escape them, yea, they shall pass us by.
“But remember the Lord says if we fail to keep his word, if we walk in the ways of the world, they will not pass us by, but we shall be visited with floods and with fire, with sword and with plague and destruction. We may escape these things through faithfulness” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:34).
Everyone Should Live the Gospel
President Joseph Fielding Smith encouraged everyone to live the gospel:
“To the honest in heart in all nations we say: The Lord loves you. He wants you to receive the full blessings of the gospel. He is now inviting you to believe the Book of Mormon, to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, and to come into his earthly kingdom and thereby become heirs of eternal life in his heavenly kingdom.
“To those who have received the gospel we say: Keep the commandments. Walk in the light. Endure to the end. Be true to every covenant and obligation, and the Lord will bless you beyond your fondest dreams. As it was said by one of old: ‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.’ (Eccles. 12:13.)
“To all the families in Israel we say: The family is the most important organization in time or in eternity. Our purpose in life is to create for ourselves eternal family units. There is nothing that will ever come into your family life that is as important as the sealing blessings of the temple and then keeping the covenants made in connection with this order of celestial marriage.
“To parents in the Church we say: Love each other with all your hearts. Keep the moral law and live the gospel. Bring up your children in light and truth; teach them the saving truths of the gospel; and make your home a heaven on earth, a place where the Spirit of the Lord may dwell and where righteousness may be enthroned in the heart of each member.
“It is the will of the Lord to strengthen and preserve the family unit. We plead with fathers to take their rightful place as the head of the house. We ask mothers to sustain and support their husbands and to be lights to their children.
“President Joseph F. Smith said: ‘Motherhood lies at the foundation of happiness in the home, and of prosperity in the nation. God has laid upon men and women very sacred obligations with respect to motherhood, and they are obligations that cannot be disregarded without invoking divine displeasure.’ (Gospel Doctrine [Deseret Book, 1939], p. 288.). Also, ‘To be a successful father or a successful mother is greater than to be a successful general or a successful statesman.’ (Ibid., p. 285.)
“To the youth of Zion we say: The Lord bless you and keep you, which most assuredly will be so as you learn his laws and live in harmony with them. Be true to every trust. Honor thy father and thy mother. Dwell together in love and conformity. Be modest in your dress. Overcome the world, and do not be led astray by the fashions and practices of those whose interests are centered upon the things of this world.
“Marry in the temple, and live joyous and righteous lives. Remember the words of Alma: ‘Wickedness never was happiness.’ (Al. 41:10.) Remember also that our hope for the future and the destiny of the Church and the cause of righteousness rest in your hands.
“To those who are called to positions of trust and responsibility in the Church we say: Preach the gospel in plainness and simplicity as it is found in the standard works of the Church. Testify of the truth of the work and the doctrines revealed anew in our day.
“Remember the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, who said, ‘I am among you as he that serveth’ (Luke 22:27), and choose to serve with an eye single to the glory of God. Visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and keep yourself unspotted from the sins of the world” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1972, 13–14).
A New Era of Area Conferences Began
On 27–29 August 1971, in Manchester, England, President Joseph Fielding Smith met with the members at an area conference held for the first time in the Church. There was great excitement among the members of the Church and they came from many areas of Europe to hear the prophet of God. For many Latter-day Saints there, it was the first time they had been in the presence of the Lord’s representative. President Smith told them:
“It is a matter of great satisfaction to me, and I am sure to my Brethren, that the Church has now grown to the point that it seems wise and necessary to hold general conferences in various nations. …
“We are members of a world church, a church that has the plan of life and salvation, a church set up by the Lord himself in these last days to carry his message of salvation to all his children in all the earth.
“The day is long since past when informed people think of us as a peculiar group in the tops of the Rocky Mountains in America. It is true that the Church headquarters are in Salt Lake City, and that the Lord’s house has been erected there to which people have come from many nations to learn the law of the Lord, and to walk in his paths.
“But now we are coming of age as a church and as a people. We have attained the stature and strength that are enabling us to fulfill the commission given us by the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith that we should carry the glad tidings of the restoration to every nation and to all people.
“And not only shall we preach the gospel in every nation before the second coming of the Son of Man, but we shall make converts and establish congregations of saints among them. …
“And so I say, we are and shall be a world church. That is our destiny. It is part of the Lord’s program. ‘The covenant people of the Lord’ are ‘scattered upon all the face of the earth,’ and it is our commission to go into all nations and gather these elect into the Church, and to bring them to a knowledge of their Redeemer, so they shall be heirs of salvation in his kingdom” (in Conference Report, Manchester England Area Conference 1971, 5–6; or Ensign, Sept. 1971, 2–3).
“Tearful eyes watched, and voices were muted as President Joseph Fielding Smith stood at the conclusion of the first All-British General Conference. As he stood, the audience came to their feet. No one moved as the Prophet left the stand. It was as though they did not want to leave the spirit that had prevailed in the meeting. There was a sacred air about King’s Hall and as a testimony to the spirit the audience burst into spontaneous singing of ‘We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet.’
“The song ended, but the crowd lingered, hungry for the sweetness of the occasion” (J. M. Heslop, “Prophet Leads Conference; British Saints Rejoice,” Church News, 4 Sept. 1971, 3).
He Called for Greater Emphasis on Family Home Evening
Nothing sounded deeper in the heart of President Joseph Fielding Smith than the importance and sanctity of the home. His messages are replete with counsel to parents and children. One of the first concerns he dealt with as President of the Church was to bolster the home by strengthening an already revealed institution—family home evening.
President Smith announced that Monday evenings should be held inviolate as the time to gather the family and teach the gospel, and he lovingly entreated parents to take their task seriously:
“We have great concern for the spiritual and moral welfare of all youth everywhere. Morality, chastity, virtue, freedom from sin—these are and must be basic to our way of life, if we are to realize its full purpose.
“We plead with fathers and mothers to teach personal purity by precept and example and to counsel with their children in all such things.
“We ask parents to set an example of righteousness in their own lives and to gather their children around them and teach them the gospel, in their home evenings and at other times” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1970, 5–6).
He Was True and Steady to the End
The ninety-five years of President Joseph Fielding Smith’s life spanned travel by horse and buggy to the jet age. He was twenty-seven years old when the Wright brothers (inventors of the first powered airplane) made their maiden voyage at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He viewed the invention of the airplane as fulfillment of prophecy. He loved to fly and thrived on the excitement of supersonic speed. But in a practical sense, his life was a model of simplicity. His interest was in service and not in money or popularity. He willingly gave money to those in need but was visibly embarrassed when receiving public recognition. He chose to live in a simple apartment rather than in luxurious surroundings. He preferred walking to riding, and having his wife driving their compact car rather than traveling in a chauffeured luxury limousine that was offered him.
As President Smith aged, he continued to work hard and keep his sense of humor. “When at 89 years of age he was walking down a flight of steps from his apartment, he slipped, fell, and suffered multiple fractures of his leg. But he was due at a meeting in the Temple a block away. Gritting his teeth, he walked the block, ‘limping like an old man,’ attended the meeting, walked home again, and only then, at others’ insistence, accepted medical treatment. ‘The meeting got a little long,’ he admitted. ‘But then, most meetings do’” (Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 4).
President Smith passed away in Salt Lake City on 2 July 1972. In a letter to President Smith’s children, President Harold B. Lee wrote: “His passing to me was as near a translation from life unto death as I think we will see in our lifetime experience. He died as he lived and has demonstrated to all of us how one can be so honored and so privileged when he has lived so close to the Lord as has your noble patriarch and father, Joseph Fielding Smith” (quoted in Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 384).