Sunday, July 2, 1972, at the close of testimony meeting, he stood with the congregation of his home ward. Tears filled his eyes as he sang, with them “The Star Spangled Banner.”
In the afternoon there was a visit to family members.
And in the evening, as he sat in the home of a beloved daughter, his head bowed quietly forward, and he died.
There was no suffering. “He was here one minute, and gone the next. It was very peaceful,” the family reported.
So ended the mortal life of a prophet of God.
For President Joseph Fielding Smith it was an appropriate last day on earth: joyful worship with his brothers and sisters in the gospel; nourishing and enjoying the family circle; a quiet, happy acceptance of the Lord’s call to further service.
It had been that way all his life.
That quiet end seems, in fact, like a personal benediction, a final earthly blessing from his Maker in appreciation for a life lived, in every respect, as life should be lived.
Joseph Fielding Smith carried an unmatched heritage, and the responsibility that goes with it, when he entered this life on July 19, 1876. He was of the lineage of prophets. His great-great grandfather had the inspiration to record, “It has been borne in upon my soul that one of my descendants will promulgate a work to revolutionize the world of religious faith.” His great-grandfather, Joseph Smith, Sr., was the first to receive, and accept, the Prophet Joseph’s testimony, was one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon, was ordained first patriarch to the Church, died a martyr’s death from exposure in the expulsion from Missouri. Joseph Fielding Smith’s grandfather, Hyrum, stood constantly beside his brother Joseph; was a counselor in the First Presidency; was second patriarch to the Church; and died at Joseph’s side as together they sealed their testimony. His father, son not only of Hyrum but also of one of history’s most remarkable pioneer women, became sixth president of the Church, the first president to be born in the Church and spend his entire life under its influence. For eighteen years as president he led and built and loved the Church and its people.
This kind of blood flowed in the veins of President Joseph Fielding Smith. But others have had noble blood and have failed to honor it. As he so often said, each man must earn his own testimony; each man at the judgment will stand responsible for his own work.
It was Joseph Fielding Smith’s own testimony, his own devotion, that led to his call to the apostleship at age thirty-three and that sustained him through sixty years as an apostle and two and one-half as president and prophet of the Church.
It was his own gentle kindness and human warmth as well as firmness in the gospel that made him so loved in Europe during the first dark days of World War II and later in the Far East, South Pacific, South America, and wherever else he traveled, blessing the Saints, opening missions, and building the Church.
It was his own scholarship and hard work that produced twenty-four books of gospel interpretation and teaching and that brought him recognition as perhaps the leading gospel scholar of this dispensation.
It was his own profound commitment to genealogy and temple work that led, during his long service as president of the Genealogical Society, to the Church’s accumulation of the world’s greatest collection of genealogical records.
And it was his own receptiveness to the inspiration of the spirit that led him, as newly ordained president and prophet, to choose two great men as counselors through whom and with whom he led the Church in its most astonishing period of profound change and growth. Here was a ninety-three-year-old man ordained president of the Church, the oldest man ever so chosen. The outlook was for a short, quiet ministry without innovation or progress. Instead, the Church literally spurted ahead. Eighty-one stakes were organized during the two and one-half years of his ministry—compared to the ninety-eight years it took to organize the first hundred stakes. Even more impressive during those two and one-half years is the long list of far-reaching organizational and program changes that prepare the Church for more rapid growth in the future.
So Joseph Fielding Smith was his own man—and the Lord’s. But what sort of man was he, really?
The president of the United States, Richard Nixon, found his friendship a “profound experience” and called him a “devoted and inspirational leader.” So did countless others. And so he was. But what else was he, away from the pressure of his high office?
He was a man who loved his family with a depth only possible to one who fully understands the eternal nature of family ties. Because he loved them, he taught them, and because they loved him, they responded. All five of his sons served missions for the Church; all eleven of his children married in the temple.
He was a man who found joy in the company of children. On the last day of his life, a mother asked him to touch her infant; she remembers his happy, loving smile as he caressed the child. Last year as he left general conference, a little girl ducked under the ropes and ran to President Smith. He picked her up and held her close. Reproved later by her parents who feared she might have become lost in the crowd, the child replied, “I wasn’t lost; I was in the arms of the Prophet.”
He was a man of quick, gentle humor, much of it directed at himself; he never took himself too seriously. He referred to his typing as the “biblical system—seek and ye shall find.” He described the duets he so often sang with his late wife, the great contralto Jessie Evans Smith, as “do-its; I have to do it whether I want to or not.” His personal secretary and longtime associate, Brother D. Arthur Haycock, recalls how the students at BYU had seemed to enjoy a recent talk and duet so greatly some had tears in their eyes. To this President Smith quickly responded, “I can understand that. My singing is enough to make anybody cry.”
He was a man who respected—and cared for—the physical body as a tabernacle of the spirit. Because of that care, he spent not a single day in the hospital in all his ninety-six years.
He loved athletics, both as participant and spectator. He still played a respectable game of handball in his seventies and credited regular exercise for his excellent health and longevity. One of the warmest, most human memories of him goes back to a Saturday session of general conference when he slipped away during the closing song to watch his son play football at the University of Utah.
With all the tradition and continuity his longevity brought to the presiding councils of the Church, he was a modern man, attuned to the times. His personal zest for living never let him become old-fashioned—unless strict personal morality and steadfast devotion are old-fashioned. His life spanned the period from the ox cart to the jet plane and lunar landings—and, indeed, in his eighties, he took delight in an occasional ride in a National Guard jet fighter.
More than all else, he was a man of God—not only at the pulpit, but in the circle of his family or the privacy of his room. As President Harold B. Lee said of him, “He sought no honors of men. His purpose in life could well be penned in one sentence—his was an ‘eye single to the glory of God in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.’”
He was his father’s tenth child; a “tithing child.” He gave his life, as all honest tithes are given, joyfully, without reservation, fully, to the Lord.