President Joseph Fielding Smith: Student of the Gospel

“The time shall never come when the Lord will not find some one that he can trust; in whom he has confidence, and who will be qualified to stand to represent him among the people. This is my testimony, and I rejoice in its truth.”

The same man who spoke these words some years ago is, himself, the man who is authorized to represent God among the people today.

Never has one come to the presidency of the Church prepared by more years of dedicated service than has our beloved prophet Joseph Fielding Smith. Named for his father, President Joseph F. Smith, who presided over the Church from 1901 to 1918, he is also the grandson of Hyrum Smith, the steadfast and loyal brother of the Prophet Joseph.

The great scope of our present leader’s experience is simply beyond comprehension to most of us. He has served twenty-nine years longer among the Brethren than any other General Authority living today. He was called to fill a vacancy in the Council of the Twelve in 1910 at the age of thirty-three and for over sixty years has served faithfully as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He held the heavy responsibility of being president of the Council of the Twelve for nineteen years and for five years was a counselor in the First Presidency.

In addition to his remarkable record as a Genera Authority, his service and contributions in other areas are almost unparalleled in the history of the Church. He served as Church Historian for forty-nine years and has long been recognized throughout the Church for his exceptional knowledge of Church history and doctrine. In 1901 he authored his first book, Asael Smith of Topsfield. In 1970 his latest volume, Seek Ye Earnestly, came from the publishers. In that span of time, he has written a total of twenty-five books, many of them household words to students of the gospel. Among these are Essentials in Church History, 1922; The Way to Perfection, 1931; The Progress of Man, 1936; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1938; Man: His Origin and Destiny, 1954; three volumes entitled Doctrines of Salvation, 1954–56; and five volumes entitled Answers to Gospel Questions, 1957–66.

In addition to this productivity, he has been actively assuming the responsibilities of husband and father since before the turn of the century. He was born on July 19, 1876. In April of 1898, when he was twenty-one years old, he married his first wife, Louie Emyla Shurtliff. After being married for only a year, he was ordained a seventy by his father on May 12, 1899, and left the next day for the mission field. Surely, making such a personal sacrifice was no easier for President Smith to do then than it would be for us to do now. But he accepted his call, labored in the Nottingham Conference for two years, and returned home in June of 1901.

Upon his return, President Smith accepted employment with the Church Historian’s Office, where he ultimately devoted a great part of his life. Further responsibility came to him in 1907 when he was appointed secretary of the Genealogical Society.

Two years before he became a member of the Council of the Twelve, President Smith lost his first wife, Louie Emyla. On November 2, 1908, he married Ethel Georgina Reynolds. She died August 26, 1937. Two daughters were born to his first wife during their nearly ten years together. His second wife was the mother of five sons and four daughters and was his companion for twenty-nine years.

President Smith then married Jessie Evans, former contralto and soloist with the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir, on April 12, 1938. A born entertainer with a vivacious and cheerful nature, she was at the president’s side for thirty-three years, buoying him up and caring for him with a love and devotion that was truly beautiful. She lived to see him become president of the Church and traveled extensively with him on his many Church assignments, sharing not only his rigorous schedule but also the loving reception of the Saints of many lands. When she succumbed to a heart ailment on August 3, 1971, millions shared President Smith’s loneliness and sorrow. On seeing the compassion and concern extended to him at this time by President Harold B. Lee, President Smith assured his counselor that the Lord would give him strength to continue in his duties. “I’ve been through this before, you know,” he said.

Countless youth have asked the question, “What is our living prophet really like?” Because of his uncompromising defense of the Lord’s laws and principles, he has been thought of by some in years past as being somewhat austere. Nothing could be further from his true character. Those close to him know him to be deeply considerate of others, extraordinarily generous with his sympathy, love, and forgiveness.

A statement attributed to more than one of his friends bears this out. “If I were to be judged by any of my fellowmen,” they have said, “let it be Joseph Fielding Smith.”

In 1956 members of the Council of the Twelve published a tribute to him. Among other things they said:

“… We only wish that the entire Church could feel the tenderness of his soul and his great concern over the welfare of the unfortunate and those in distress. He loves all the Saints and never ceases to pray for the sinner.

“With remarkable discernment, he seems to have but two measures in arriving at final decisions. What are the wishes of the First Presidency? Which is best for the kingdom of God?”

One of the president’s sons gives this poignant insight into his father’s character and to the source of President Smith’s great inner strength:

“As children, so frequently we would hear him say, ‘If only the people in the world would understand the trials, the tribulations, the sins our Lord took upon himself for our benefit.’ Whenever he would refer to this, tears would come into his eyes.

“A few years ago, as I sat alone with my father in his study, I observed that he had been in deep meditation. I hesitated to break the silence, but finally he spoke. ‘Oh, my son, I wish you could have been with me last Thursday as I met with my Brethren in the temple. Oh, if you could have heard them testify of their love for their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!’ And then he lowered his head, and tears streamed from his face and dropped to his shirt. Then, after many seconds, without as much as raising his head, but moving his head back and forth, he said, ‘Oh, how I love my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!’”

His devotion to the Lord began in his youth. President Smith has said:

“I was trained at my mother’s knee to love the Prophet Joseph Smith and to love my Redeemer. I never knew my Grandmother Smith. I have always regretted that, because she was one of the most noble women who ever lived; but I did know her good sister, my Aunt Mary Thompson, and as a boy I used to go and visit her in her home and sit at her knee, where she told me stories about the Prophet Joseph Smith, and, oh, how grateful I am for that experience.”

As a youth he decided early on reading the scriptures. According to his sister Edith, he had read the Book of Mormon twice by the time he was ten.

“When I was a small boy, too young to hold the Aaronic Priesthood, my father placed a copy of the Book of Mormon in my hands with the request that I read it. I received this Nephite record with thanksgiving and applied myself to the task which had been assigned to me. There are certain passages that have been stamped upon my mind, and I have never forgotten them.”

But in addition to his serious and studious nature, there is a lighter side to the president’s personality. He has a ready sense of humor that he exercises frequently and spontaneously.

On one occasion President Smith returned from a conference assignment in California with his lunch sack filled with olives he had picked. Delighted with his treasure, and always anxious to share, he asked one of his brethren if he had ever “tasted an olive right off the tree.” His unsuspecting victim had not, so he took a healthy bite into one of the olives. This proved to be a rather bitter experience, and as the brother’s face puckered up, President Smith asked innocently, “What’s the matter? Did you get a bad one? Here, you had better try another one.”

At the conclusion of a stake conference a man came up to President Smith, handed him the conference program, and asked him if he would put his “John Henry” on it. So President Smith did just that. In big bold letters he wrote “John Henry.”

But perhaps the best description of a person comes from those who live with him. In 1932 his wife Ethel said:

“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 the 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 know.”

These vignettes, then, give some idea of the nature of the man. But it is perhaps in his role as a student that he will be longest remembered. In a recent general conference he said:

“All my life I have studied and pondered the principles of the gospel and sought to live the laws of the Lord. As a result, there has come into my heart a great love for him, and for his work, and for all those who seek to further his purposes in the earth.”

All of us need to become more studious in the gospel, reading the scriptures, reading good books about the Church. Our president has set the course for us, and he has told us what will happen if we will study and ponder: “As a result, there has come into my heart a great love for him and for his work. …”

Joseph Fielding Smith Highlights (1876– )




July 19, 1876

Born in Salt Lake City, son of the sixth president of the Church



Patriarchal blessing proclaims, “It shall be thy duty to sit in counsel with thy brethren and to preside among the people”



Ordained elder



Marries Louie Emyla Shurtliff; she dies in 1908, leaving two daughters



Serves mission to England



Becomes clerk in Church historian’s office



Marries Ethel Georgina Reynolds; she bears five sons and four daughters, dies in 1937.



Ordained apostle by his father



Becomes Church historian



Becomes president of Genealogical Society



Marries Jessie Evans; she dies in 1971



Makes tour of Europe; is in Germany when World War II breaks out; directs evacuation of all missionaries from Europe



Becomes president, Salt Lake Temple



Becomes president, Council of the Twelve



Becomes counselor to President David O. McKay in First Presidency



Sustained president of Church



Observes 95th birthday; presides over first area general conference of Church, Manchester, England

[photo] Elder Joseph Fielding Smith as an apostle.

[photo] Father and son, two prophets of God.

[photo] He has participated in numerous college commencement exercises.

[photos] President Smith has always been a man of wide-ranging interests.

[photo] Young Joseph Fielding Smith, center, and his brothers: (l to r) George Carlos and David A.

[photos] President Smith during several stages of his life.

[photo] Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and his sons in 1940.

[photo] President Smith with his son Lewis who was killed in World War II.

[photo] The First Presidency today: President Smith, President Tanner, President Lee.