Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the Church, was born on 13 November 1838 in the midst of the Missouri persecutions and died on 19 November 1918, eight days after an armistice ended World War I. He was intimately acquainted with sorrow and suffering, violence and persecution, yet he desired “to be a peacemaker, a preacher of righteousness.” He taught the doctrines of Jesus Christ with remarkable clarity and labored “not only to preach righteousness by word, but by example.” 2 His powerful witness of the Redeemer was the heart of his preaching and the center of his daily life. His son Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th President of the Church, fondly remembered: “His spirit was gentle and kind. A more sympathetic soul, one who suffered with the sufferer, who was more willing to help the helpless to carry his burden, and the downtrodden to regain his feet, could not be found in all the borders of Israel. He was a peace-maker, a lover of peace.” 3
President Joseph F. Smith exhorted the Saints to walk in the meekness of the Spirit. “Let us conquer ourselves,” he admonished, “and then go to and conquer all the evil that we see around us, as far as we possibly can. And we will do it without using violence; we will do it without interfering with the agency of men or of women. We will do it by persuasion, by long-suffering, by patience, and by forgiveness and love unfeigned, by which we will win the hearts, the affections and the souls of the children of men to the truth as God has revealed it to us.” 4
He knew the rest that comes to “peaceable followers of Christ” (Moro. 7:3) and urged Latter-day Saints to move forward in truth and holiness. He led the way with his own peaceable walk. “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.” 5
His teachings of the gospel which framed his understanding of peace are the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for the next two years, 2000–2001, and are the second in the series Teachings of Presidents of the Church.
Joseph F. Smith’s desire to follow the Prince of Peace began in his childhood, becoming the clear standard in his home in later years and the focus of his Church service and leadership for six decades.
From his parents he learned to follow the Savior’s example of obedience, sacrifice, and service, even in the midst of turmoil and trouble.
In late fall 1838, Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith awaited the birth of their first child in the midst of escalating conflict between old Missouri settlers and large numbers of newly arrived Latter-day Saints such as the Smiths. When violence erupted, the governor ordered the Latter-day Saints to leave the state or face “extermination.” Hundreds lost their property, and a number lost their lives. Several Church leaders—Hyrum, his brother the Prophet Joseph Smith, and others—were unjustly jailed. Years later President Smith would begin a sketch of his life with these words: “I was born in Far West, Caldwell Co. Missouri, 13 days after my Father was taken a prisoner by the mob.” 6
During four long months, Hyrum and Joseph and others suffered in Liberty Jail. Mary Fielding Smith, who had just given birth to her “dear little Joseph F.,” struggled to care for her newborn and the five surviving children from Hyrum’s first marriage to Jerusha Barden Smith, who had died in childbirth in 1837.
While Mary lay bedridden, ruffians attacked the Smith home, ransacking the family’s belongings and nearly smothering the infant Joseph F. with bedding they tossed aside. Mary and the children, aided by Mary’s sister Mercy Fielding Thompson, joined the Saints’ forced exodus from Missouri. Hyrum was finally reunited with his family on 22 April 1839 at Quincy, Illinois.
In June, after the family moved up the Mississippi River to settle with other Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, Mary wrote in a letter to her brother: “I feel but little concerned about where I am, if I can but keep my mind staid upon God; for, you know in this there is perfect peace. I believe the Lord is overruling all things for our good.” 7
Thirty-five years later, on 13 November 1874, Joseph F. Smith thoughtfully noted: “The day was cold, bleak and dreary, a fit and proper anniversary of the dark and trying day of my birth; When my father and his brother were confined in a dungeon for the gospel’s sake and the saints were being driven from their homes in Missouri by a merciless mob. The bright sunshine of my soul has never thoroughly dispelled the darkening shadows cast upon it by the lowering gloom of that eventful period. Yet the merciful hand of God and his kindliest providences have ever been extended visibly toward me, even from my childhood, and my days grow better and better thru humility and the pursuit of wisdom and happiness in the kingdom of God; The objects of my life becoming more apparent as time advances and experience grows. Those objects being the proclamation of the gospel, or the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth; The salvation of souls.” 8
During five relatively peaceful years in Nauvoo, Joseph F. observed his father labor to save souls through ministering as Church patriarch and as Assistant President to the Prophet Joseph. It was here young Joseph F. learned of the divine mission of Jesus Christ and the prophetic calling of his uncle Joseph Smith, that he “was a prophet of God; that he was inspired as no other man in his generation, or for centuries before, had been inspired; that he had been chosen of God to lay the foundations of God’s Kingdom.” 9
Joseph and Hyrum were assassinated by a hateful mob on 27 June 1844. Joseph F. was not yet six years old, but the image of his uncle’s “lifeless body together with that of my father after they were murdered in Carthage jail” long remained with him. 10 Though he never forgot the “dreadful scenes that … filled 10 thousand hearts with grief and woe,” Joseph F. grew to understand the sacred significance of the martyrdom to himself, his family and the Church at large. 11 In later years, he frequently bore witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet who fulfilled his destiny and sealed his testimony with his blood.
President Smith also cherished tender memories of his mother’s abiding faith and willingness to sacrifice. During the eight years between Hyrum’s martyrdom in 1844 and Mary’s own death in 1852, she shepherded her family across the plains to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, established a home and farm, and nurtured the faith of her children. President Smith forever revered his mother’s willingness to “toil and labor and sacrifice herself day and night, for the temporal comforts and blessings that she could meagerly give … to her children.” 12 In the midst of harsh and trying times, he found great comfort in her conviction: “The Lord will open the way.” 13
As a young missionary, he did all in his power to advance the Savior’s work “to earth’s remotest bounds.” 14
Before his 16th birthday Joseph F. accepted the call to serve as a missionary in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). His first assignment in October 1854 was at Kula, where he immersed himself in the Hawaiian language and culture. Young Elder Smith soon discovered that the people “had different habits to anything I had before known, and their food, and dress and houses and everything were new and strange. … For three months this seclusion from the world continued, but the history of that short period of my life never can be told. I had ample time to feel after the Lord and to draw near to him with my whole soul.” 15
In the process, he also found himself drawing closer to the Hawaiian people. He earnestly sought the gift of tongues and learned their language in a hundred days. He taught the gospel, settled grievances, healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, and tried to reclaim those who had drifted away.
On the islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Molokai, he served as presiding elder and learned through his service to receive and extend love. He recorded in his journal in March 1856 that a brother on Maui “gave me his shoes from off his feet and went barefooted himself. … This was a specimen of his love to me that should not be forgotten.” 16
On Molokai, he received motherly care from Sister Ma Mahuhii, who nursed him for three months when he lay seriously ill with a fever. She never forgot him, nor he her. “Iosepa, Iosepa,” she cried out to him when he visited Hawaii nearly 50 years later. “Mama, Mama, my dear old Mama!” he affectionately replied. 17 The people who had seemed so different from himself at the outset of his mission had become his family.
Joseph F. became an ardent defender of the faith on his first mission but learned on his second mission the importance of avoiding contention and proffering peace. In 1896 he described to his son Hyrum an incident that occurred on his mission to England in the early 1860s. “I was speaking, and I said that ‘the authority of the Apostles of today was the same as that held by the Apostles of Christ’s day, and that the word of modern Apostles was as good as the word of the ancient Apostles.’ Somebody in the audience cried out ‘blasphemy!’ This was too much for my boyish temper to bear.”
The spirited young missionary argued fiercely with his opponent and “stirred up the emissaries of his Satanic Majesty until they were red-hot.” President Smith described learning “a good lesson” from his outburst. “Thereafter I moderated my fervor—became more diplomatic in the presence of a mixed crowd, and avoided showing any temper when reviled. In fact I learned to be reviled without reviling back again, to take an insult without retorting, except in meekness and gentlemanly candor.” He summarized, “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 pave, and not destroy, to build up and not tear down.” 18
As a loving husband and father, he treasured his family and unceasingly taught them principles of righteousness.
President Smith understood that the man or woman who would establish peace must not only preach the principles of righteousness but live by them. For him, “the very foundation of the kingdom of God, of righteousness, of progress, of development, of eternal life and eternal increase in the kingdom of God, is laid in the divinely ordained home.” 19 His son Joseph Fielding Smith observed with admiration and gratitude that his father loved his family “with a holy love that is seldom seen, never surpassed. Like Job of old, he prayed for them night and day and asked the Lord to keep them pure and undefiled in the path of righteousness.” 20
President Smith’s journals and letters are filled with eloquent outpourings of his feelings for his loved ones. He counseled his son Alvin F. in a 1905 letter: “Your disposition is very much like my own. My greatest difficulty has been to guard my temper, to keep cool in the moment of excitement or trial. I have always been too quick to resent a wrong, too impatient, or hasty. I hope you will be very careful, my son, on these points. He who can govern himself is greater than he who ruleth a city.” 21
On the many occasions “when death invaded his home, … and his little ones were taken from him, he grieved with a broken heart and mourned, not as those mourn who live without hope, but for the loss of his ‘precious jewels.’” 22 On 6 July 1879 President Smith expressed grief in his journal over his daughter Rhoda’s death: “I had scarcely laid down when I was called—as soon as possible I dressed and entered the sick room. I found my … darling beloved one dying. I took her on a pillow and walked the floor with her, she again revived but only lingered about an hour and died in my arms at 1:40 A.M. Now God only knows how deeply we mourn. This is the 5th death in my family. All my little ones most beloved! O! God help us to bear this trial!” 23
He believed that “life everlasting should begin at home.” 24 He spoke passionately about saving his own children and advised parents likewise to teach their children the gospel. “Oh! God, let me not lose my own,” he cried. “I can not afford to lose mine, whom God has given to me and whom I am responsible for before the Lord, and who are dependent upon me for guidance, for instruction, for proper influence.” 25
He had strong words for the importance of home and family in finding personal peace: “There is too little religious devotion, love and fear of God, in the home; too much worldliness, selfishness, indifference and lack of reverence in the family, or these never would exist so abundantly on the outside. Then, the home is what needs reforming.” He was confident in what would bring harmony: “Let love, and peace, and the Spirit of the Lord, kindness, charity, sacrifice for others, abound in your families. Banish harsh words, envyings, hatreds, evil speaking, obscene language and innuendo, blasphemy, and let the Spirit of God take possession of your hearts. Teach to your children these things, in spirit and power, sustained and strengthened by personal practice.” 26
For those with wayward children, he counseled: “Speak to them kindly. … Get them to feel as you feel, have interest in the things in which you take interest, to love the gospel as you love it, to love one another as you love them; to love their parents as the parents love the children.” 27
To further solidify families against the wiles of the world, in 1915 he introduced a weekly home evening. The program has become a backbone of family activity in the Church. President Smith and his counselors promised that holding home evening would bring peace and great blessings: “Love at home and obedience to parents will increase. Faith will be developed in the hearts of the youth of Israel, and they will gain power to combat the evil influence and temptations which beset them.” 28
As an Apostle and Church President, he grew in his capacity for charity and forgiveness and sought to prepare the Latter-day Saints for the blessings of a peaceful life.
In 1866, at age 27, Joseph F. Smith was ordained an Apostle and a member of the First Presidency at the same time. He would serve in the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency for more than half a century. On 17 October 1901, a week after the death of President Lorenzo Snow, President Smith was ordained and set apart as sixth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In his first address as Church President, he spoke sorrowfully of the ridicule and persecution Latter-day Saints had suffered since the early years of the 19th century. “The Lord designs to change this condition of things,” he prophetically announced, “and to make us known to the world in our true light—as true worshipers of God” whose “mission in this world is to do good, to put down iniquity under our feet, to exalt righteousness, purity, and holiness in the hearts of the people, and to establish in the minds of our children, above all other things, a love for God and his word, that shall be in them as a fountain of light, strength, faith and power.” 29
He promised the Saints if they would live nearer to the Lord, they would enjoy a greater outpouring of the Spirit. He then entreated them to feel “in your hearts and from the depths of your souls to forgive one another, and never from this time forth … bear malice toward another fellow creature.” 30 He kept this counsel himself, refusing to allow repeated attacks upon his character to make him bitter and vindictive. “The spirit of the world is vicious,” 31 he said, as he advised the Saints to prize the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23).
Antagonistic journalists made him the brunt of vilifying articles and defaming cartoons. His daughter Edith Eleanor recalled when “the news media was really persecuting my father. Some of the people at school had in their possession false reports and lies about Father. I went home from school furious one day. As soon as Father came in that evening I said to him, ‘Papa, why don’t you do something? You’re not doing one thing, and these mean men are taking advantage of you, printing all these lies.’” Her father smiled and said, “‘Baby, don’t get upset. They are not hurting me one bit; they are only hurting themselves. Don’t you know, Baby, that when someone tells a lie they are only hurting themselves more than anyone else?’” 32
To his children and the Church, President Smith confirmed what he had learned as a boy: “Let the evil one exhaust his efforts, and do his worst; and the Lord will overrule it, in the end for the good of His cause.” 33
Peace became one of his hallmarks. He taught: “If our hearts are fixed with proper intent upon serving God and keeping His commandments, what will be the fruits of it? What will be the result? … Men will be full of the spirit of forgiveness, of charity, of mercy, of love unfeigned. …
“… We are looking forward to the time when we may reach that glorious and exalted standard set for us by the example, the life, and mission of the Lord, Jesus Christ.” 34
His close friend Charles W. Nibley (1849–1931), who was later a counselor in the First Presidency, observed, “He became one of the most tolerant of men; … while he would denounce sin with such righteous wrath as you would seldom see in any man, yet for the poor sinner he had compassion and pity.” 35 A friend who had known him for two generations, said of him in 1916, “Once stern and unrelenting, he has mellowed as the years go on, until he sees but the good in humanity and forgives men their trespasses.” 36 Loleka Koleka, one of his cherished Hawaiian friends, praised him as “the servant of the Most High God, the man of open heart filled with love.” 37 He was an example of what he asked of all: “Let us sustain one another in the right, and kindly admonish one another in regard to wrongdoing, that we may be friends and saviors on Mount Zion.” 38
Thousands mourned the death of President Joseph F. Smith on 19 November 1918, including many of those who had once “expressed bitterness and enmity” toward him. 39
“The grand object of our coming to this earth is that we may become like Christ,” President Smith had taught. 40 “Let us, therefore, seek the truth and walk in the light as Christ is in the light, that we may have fellowship with him and with each other, that his blood may cleanse us from all sin.” 41 Having testified throughout his life, “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and having encouraged the Saints “to become conformed to the likeness and image of Jesus Christ,” President Joseph F. Smith bequeathed an enduring prophetic witness of the Prince of Peace. 42
Milestones in the Life of Joseph F. Smith
13 Nov. 1838: Born in Far West, Missouri, to Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith.
Winter 1838–39: Driven from Missouri as a babe in arms.
27 June 1844: Age 5, his father, Hyrum, and uncle Joseph Smith martyred at Carthage Jail, Carthage, Illinois.
Fall 1846: Age 7, crosses Mississippi River from Nauvoo into Iowa with his mother.
23 Sept. 1848: Age 9, arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, after driving ox team across the plains.
21 May 1852: Age 13, baptized in City Creek, Salt Lake City. Baptism at age 8 was not as common as it is today.
21 Sept. 1852: Age 13, his mother dies.
1854–57: Ages 15–19, serves a mission to Hawaii.
1860–63: Ages 21–24, serves a mission to Great Britain.
1864: Ages 25–26, serves another mission to Hawaii.
1 July 1866: Age 27, ordained an Apostle and called as a counselor in the First Presidency to President Brigham Young.
1874–75, 1877: Ages 35–36, 38, serves as president of the European Mission.
10 Oct. 1880: Age 41, sustained as second counselor in the First Presidency to President John Taylor.
7 Apr. 1889: Age 50, sustained as second counselor in the First Presidency to President Wilford Woodruff.
13 Sept. 1898: Age 59, sustained as second counselor in the First Presidency to President Lorenzo Snow.
17 Oct. 1901: Age 62, sustained as sixth President of the Church. Church membership is 278,645.
1903–1907: Directs Church to purchase historic sites: Carthage Jail in Illinois; part of the temple site at Independence, Missouri; Joseph Smith birthplace in Sharon, Vermont; and the Joseph Smith Sr. family farm and Sacred Grove in Manchester, New York.
1906: Visits Europe, the first President of the Church to do so while in office.
27 July 1913: Dedicates the temple site at Cardston, Alberta, Canada.
27 Apr. 1915: Introduces the weekly family home evening program.
1 June 1915: Dedicates the temple site at Laie, Hawaii.
3 Oct. 1918: Age 79, receives revelation on the redemption of the dead, now D&C 138.
19 Nov. 1918: Age 80, dies in Salt Lake City, Utah, after serving 17 years as Church President. Church membership is 495,962.
Jill Mulvay Derr is a research historian for the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University.
Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1978), 28.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith , xxiii.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 400.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 250.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xxiii.
Joseph F. Smith Journal, 13 Nov. 1838, holograph, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hyrum and Joseph Smith and others were imprisoned at Richmond, Missouri, for three weeks prior to their removal to Liberty Jail.
Mary Smith to Joseph Fielding, 20 May, 1840, in Millennial Star, June 1840, 40–42.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 147.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 11.
Gospel Doctrine, 538.
Joseph F. Smith Journal, Leeds, 13 Apr. 1861, capitalization modernized.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 35.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xiv.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (1938), 181.
From Prophet to Son: Advice of Joseph F. Smith to His Missionary Sons, ed. Hyrum M. Smith III and Scott G. Kenney (1981), vii.
Joseph F. Smith Journal, 1 Mar. 1856.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 192.
Joseph F. Smith to Hyrum M. Smith, 18 May 1896, in Truth and Courage: The Joseph F. Smith Letters, ed. Joseph Fielding McConkie (1988), 44–45.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 346.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, 449.
Joseph F. Smith to Alvin F. Smith, 8 June 1905, in From Prophet to Son, 84.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, 455.
Truth and Courage, 53.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 244.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 244.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 346–47.
Gospel Doctrine, 316.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 348.
Gospel Doctrine, 141.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 258.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1905, 86.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 257.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1912, 10.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 427–28.
“Reminiscences of President Joseph F. Smith,” Improvement Era, Jan. 1919, 193.
C. C. Goodwin, “Joseph F. Smith,” Improvement Era, June 1916, 669–70.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xxiii.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 245.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, 479.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 152.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 356.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 148.