Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the Church, was born on 13 November 1838 in the midst of the Missouri persecutions. He died on 19 November 1918, eight days after an armistice ended World War I. Intimately acquainted with sorrow and suffering, violence and persecution, he desired “to be a peacemaker, a preacher of righteousness.” Accordingly, he taught the doctrines of Jesus Christ with remarkable clarity and labored “not only to preach righteousness by word, but by example.” 1 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.” 2
Joseph F. Smith knew the rest that comes to “peaceable followers of Christ” (Moro. 7:3), and he 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.” 3
Melchizedek Priesthood brethren and Relief Society sisters have the opportunity to join President Smith in his journey during 2000 and 2001. During those years, a collection of his teachings will be the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for Phase 3 languages. The collection, taken from his sermons and writings, is the second in the series Teachings of Presidents of the Church.
A Heritage of Obedience and Sacrifice
Joseph F. Smith’s desire to follow the Prince of Peace began in his childhood. 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. When violence erupted, the governor ordered the Latter-day Saints to leave the state or face “extermination.” Hundreds of Church members 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.” 4
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 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, and in June, the family moved up the Mississippi River to settle with other Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Years later, on 13 November 1874, his 36th birthday, Joseph F. 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 [in Richmond] 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.” 5
During five relatively peaceful years in Nauvoo, Joseph F. observed his father 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, learning that Joseph “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.” 6
Joseph and Hyrum were assassinated by a 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. 7 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, to his family, and to the Church. 8 In later years, he frequently bore witness that the Prophet Joseph Smith 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.” 9 In the midst of harsh and trying times, he found great comfort in her conviction: “The Lord will open the way.” 10
A Missionary to the World
As a young missionary, Joseph F. did all in his power to advance the Savior’s work “to earth’s remotest bounds.” 11 Before his 16th birthday he 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. This inexperienced youth 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.” 12
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 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.” 13
On Molokai, he received motherly care from Sister Ma Mahuhii, who nursed him for three months while he lay seriously ill. She never forgot him, nor he her. “Iosepa, Iosepa,” she cried out when he visited Hawaii nearly 50 years later. “Mama, Mama, my dear old Mama!” he replied. 14 Those who had seemed so different from himself at the outset of his mission had become his family.
President Joseph F. Smith became an ardent defender of the faith on his first mission. On his second, he learned the importance of avoiding contention and proffering peace. In 1896 he described to his son Hyrum an incident that occurred during 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 the 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.” 15
A Loving Husband and Father
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.” 16 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.” 17
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.’” 18 On 6 July 1879 President Smith expressed grief in his journal over his daughter Rhoda’s death: “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!” 19
He believed that “life everlasting should begin at home.” 20 He spoke passionately about saving his own children and advised parents 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.” 21
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.” 22
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.” 23
To further solidify families against the wiles of the world, in 1915 he introduced a weekly home evening. 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.” 24
A Special Witness of Jesus Christ
As an Apostle and Church President, Joseph F. Smith grew in his capacity for Christlike love and sought to prepare the Latter-day Saints for the blessings of a peaceful life. In 1866, at age 27, he was ordained an Apostle and a member of the First Presidency. He would serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency for more than half a century. On 17 October 1901, a week after the death of President Lorenzo Snow, 62-year-old President Smith was ordained and set apart as the 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. “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.” 25
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.” 26 He lived this counsel, refusing to allow repeated attacks upon his character to make him bitter and vindictive. “The spirit of the world is vicious,” 27 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: “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?’” 28
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.” 29
In teaching the gospel of peace, he observed: “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.” 30
His close friend Charles W. Nibley (1849–1931), who was later a counselor in the First Presidency, said of President Smith: “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.” 31 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.” 32
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. 33
“The grand object of our coming to this earth is that we may become like Christ,” President Smith had taught. 34 “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.” 35 Having testified of the Savior throughout his life and having encouraged the Saints “to become conformed to the likeness and image of Jesus Christ,” 36 President Joseph F. Smith leaves us his enduring prophetic witness of the Prince of Peace.
Milestones in the Life of Joseph F. Smith
13 November 1838: Born in Far West, Missouri, to Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith.
Winter 1838–39: His family is forced to leave Missouri.
June 1844: Age 5. His father, Hyrum, and uncle Joseph Smith are martyred at Carthage Jail, Carthage, Illinois.
Fall 1846: Age 7. Crosses the Mississippi River from Nauvoo into Iowa with his mother.
September 1848: Age 9. Arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, after driving an ox team across the plains.
May 1852: Age 13. Is baptized in City Creek, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Baptism at age 8 was not as common then as it is today.)
September 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.
July 1866: Age 27. Is 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.
October 1880: Age 41. Is sustained as Second Counselor in the First Presidency to President John Taylor.
April 1889: Age 50. Is sustained as Second Counselor in the First Presidency to President Wilford Woodruff.
September 1898: Age 59. Is sustained as Second Counselor in the First Presidency to President Lorenzo Snow.
October 1901: Age 62. Is 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 near Palmyra, New York.
1906: Visits Europe, the first President of the Church to do so while in office.
July 1913: Dedicates the temple site at Cardston, Alberta, Canada.
April 1915: Introduces the weekly home evening program.
June 1915: Dedicates the temple site at Laie, Hawaii.
October 1918: Age 79. Receives revelation on the redemption of the dead, now D&C 138.
November 1918: Age 80. Dies in Salt Lake City, Utah, after serving 17 years as Church President. Church membership is 495,962.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society course of study, 1998), xxiii.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 400.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xxiii.
Joseph F. Smith Journal, 13 November 1838, holograph; Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 147.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 11.
Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th edition (1939), 538.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xiv.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 35.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xiv.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, complied by Joseph Fielding Smith (1938), 181.
From Prophet to Son: Advice of Joseph F. Smith to His Missionary Sons, edited by Hyrum M. Smith III and Scott G. Kenney (1981), vii.
Joseph F. Smith Journal, 1 March 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, edited by Joseph Fielding McConkie (no date).
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 346.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, 449.
Life of Joseph F. Smith, 455.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 128.
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, April 1905, 86.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 257.
In Conference Report, April 1912, 10.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 427–28.
“Reminiscences of President Joseph F. Smith,” Improvement Era, January 1919, 193.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xxiii.
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.