97951_000_012The question was a test of his faith, and his life hung in the balance. But for this future president of the Church, there was no doubt what his answer would be.
You will very likely hear these words in your lifetime: “Are you a Mormon?” Perhaps it will be when your friends see that your drink of choice is root beer. Or maybe it will be when you decide to turn down a date to the school dance because you’re not yet 16 years old. Whatever the situation, you most likely won’t be asked at gunpoint. And your answer won’t determine whether you live or die. But that was the way it was for 19-year-old Joseph F. Smith.
After serving a four-year mission in the Hawaiian Islands, from 1854 to 1857, young Joseph F. Smith began his long journey home to Utah. He boated across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, then slowly began his journey by foot with a small company of Latter-day Saints.
One day when the company had stopped to camp and rest, a group of troublemakers came storming through. Most of the men ran and hid, but Joseph decided he had nothing to be afraid of, so he continued the task of piling firewood in the camp. As he did so, one of the men approached him with a pistol, declaring that it was his duty to exterminate every Mormon he came in contact with. As he pointed his pistol at Joseph, he demanded, “Are you a Mormon?”
Without fear or hesitation, Joseph answered, “Yes siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”
The man was so startled by the courage of young Joseph F. Smith that he dropped his pistol and said, “Well, you are the [expletive deleted] pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.” The man rode off, with the others following behind (Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, 189).
The man was right. Joseph did stand up for his convictions. He had faced many trials because of his beliefs. But living true to his faith, even when he was in danger, came second nature to him.
Life’s challenges began at an early age for Joseph. His father, Hyrum Smith, and his uncle, the Prophet Joseph Smith, were martyred when Joseph was only five years old. Then, when he was nine, he had to drive his mother’s wagon across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. And soon after settling in Utah, 13-year-old Joseph was orphaned when his mother died from overwork and malnutrition. But these trying experiences taught Joseph the importance of kneeling before his Father in Heaven and standing up for what he believed in.
Joseph’s firm, fearless, “yesiree” answer to the question “Are you a Mormon?” was based in faith and humility—two things he learned while he was on his mission in Hawaii at the age of 15. The Lord blessed Joseph immensely while he was serving his mission. After only three months, he became fluent in the Hawaiian language—taking equal turns teaching with his native companion. He also developed leadership skills when he was called as conference president on the islands of Maui and Hawaii.
While in Hawaii, Joseph experienced hardship after hardship. At one point in his mission, his apartment and all his belongings were consumed in a fire. The only thing he had left was his missionary certificate, which had been miraculously preserved. Because of the fire, Joseph and his companion only had one suit between the two of them. This situation called for a creative solution. Since both elders couldn’t proselyte at the same time, one would go out proselyting in the suit, while the other one stayed home. Then they would switch clothes and the other would begin his turn proselyting.
Joseph once said that “experience is better possessed than to be gained. It is like a bruise, it feels better after it quits hurting” (Life of Joseph F. Smith, 188). After his mission, Joseph must have felt like he had a lot of “bruises.” But because of his faith, he was able to turn his trials into learning experiences that forced him to rely on the Lord for strength. And it was because of his reliance on the Lord that he could stand fearless when asked at gunpoint, “Are you a Mormon?”
The question, “Are you a Mormon?” asks more than just what religion you are. It gives you the chance to explain that you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and what that means to you. It inquires about who you are and how you feel about your beliefs. And, ironically enough, the question can be an answer, too. When the question is asked, you’ll know that people recognize that you, like Joseph F. Smith, stand apart from the world.