The Legacy of Sister Jessie Evans Smith

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright,” wrote Shakespeare, and he might have been describing Sister Jessie Evans Smith, wife of President Joseph Fielding Smith. She was radiant, sunny, colorful, and full of the light of the gospel, sharing her exhilarating philosophy of life with all she met.

Visits with her in the Smith home stand out in the memories of those who met her there. Each visit was an adventure. She would read aloud from President Smith’s books choice statement to motivate a life; or she would explain her magnifying glass invention for needlework; or she would show the quilt she made from ties donated by the men of the Tabernacle Choir; or she would sing, play the piano, or talk of the disciplines she imposed on herself to achieve the goals of perfect diction and tone.

She would share with her visitors sweet secrets of her delightful life with her husband—her little jokes to brighten his life, her special food tricks for his dietary requests, her habit of keeping his worn set of scriptures close by. She might share her scrapbooks of worldwide travels and her records of sacred experiences. Nearby on the piano would be the music for the duets she and President Smith sang. One moved quickly from laughter to tears with this inimitable soul.

When she died Tuesday, August 3, 1971, at 68 years of age, she left behind her a wealth of stories, sage statements, and bits of counsel to make lives rich.

On love and marriage: “The deepest tenderness a woman can show her husband is to help him do his duty.” She was an example to all in this.

“Wait for the right one, girls. The right one can take you to the temple. I waited!” Sister Smith waited through several careers in music, civic life, and teaching. Then she married an apostle! Elder Joseph Fielding Smith had eleven children then. She told the children, “I’m not going to try to replace your mother [who had just died]. I’m here to love and help you. Call me ‘Aunt Jessie.’”

On God and gifts: “A song from the heart will be answered with a blessing on the head. I’ve been blessed trying to repay my Heavenly Father for his gift to me.”

“Always remember that the Lord has the power to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. If we do our part and prayerfully seek him, he’ll be with us. I know.”

“My advice to young musicians is to practice and pray and serve. These are the key words to put into your life if you want to succeed.”

On life: “If you are handed a lemon, make lemonade out of it.”

On happiness: “Happiness isn’t always doing what you want to do. Sometimes it’s doing what you don’t want to do and being glad you did.” At her funeral it was said of her that she knew it was her duty to be happy.

On decisions: “Decisions ought to be made in favor of our Heavenly Father. When I had an opportunity as a young woman to become a contralto with the Metropolitan Opera, I told them I’d have to pray about it. I also studied my patriarchal blessing, which promised me that my success would come in the service of the Lord. So I came home and rejoined the Tabernacle Choir.” She has the longest service record in the choir—over fifty years—making the phrase “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart” from “King of Glory” not only a sermon in song but a symbol of her life.

On women: “Women are the flowers in God’s great garden, and they ought to look perky.” Aunt Jessie’s brightly flowered gowns, her multicolored beads and earrings, and the ever-present orchid were trademarks. When she sang “I Enjoy Being a Girl” at BYU last year, the laughter and applause shook the rafters.

While conducting a meeting in his office recently, President Smith suddenly stopped; turning to point a finger at his wife, he said, “I can’t think of one reason … why I shouldn’t love you.”

And we can’t either.