“Joseph F. Smith: Families and Generation Gaps,” New Era, Jan. 1972, 40
In a day when the generation gap often comes under discussion, when rifts between parents and children are commonplace, it is comforting to know that there are families that are closely bound together by love and understanding.
Such was the home of President Joseph F. Smith, the father of a family of forty-eight children, each of whom was loved in a special way. Significantly, it was during the administration of President Smith, perhaps more than during any other, that the Church began to place special emphasis on the home, family home evenings, and the value of family life in general—an emphasis that has again emerged strongly in our own time.
Ironically, however, President Smith grew up without the type of home life he advocated, having lost both of his parents by the time he was in his early teens. Perhaps it is because of this loss that he felt so keenly the need of security that a family can provide. Joseph’s father, Hyrum Smith, was shot by a mob when the future president was only six years old.
It is well known that Hyrum had been the Prophet Joseph’s mainstay through much of their lives and that Joseph had loved his older brother as he loved his own life. The Lord also had expressed his love of Hyrum “because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me.” (D&C 124:15.)
Throughout his life Joseph F. loved his father with a special kind of devotion, a devotion prompted by the choice relationship that can exist between father and son. His last memory of his father, as Hyrum rode off to Carthage, was vivid. “Without getting off his horse,” President Smith related later, “father leaned over in his saddle and picked me up off the ground. He kissed me goodbye and put me down again and I saw him ride away.” This experience was to be followed by days of uncertainty and then a night of terror. “I remember the night of the murder … when one of the brethren came from Carthage and knocked on our window after dark and called to my mother, ‘Sister Smith, your husband has been killed.’” This occurred when he was only six years of age. As a mature man he still remembered the uncertainty and terror of that night.
Two years later Joseph F. Smith and his widowed mother were to set off across the plains of America with many other Mormon pioneers, and there, during the time on the plains, he learned many lessons in faith from his mother. Two are briefly sketched:
The first involved the loss of their oxen while crossing the plains. President Smith has called this “one of the first practical and positive demonstrations of the efficacy of prayer I have ever witnessed.” The impression it made on his mind was to aid him all through his life.
Upon awakening one morning, the Smiths found their best team of oxen missing. Joseph F. and his uncle, Joseph Fielding, set out and searched an entire morning in vain. Filled with fatigue and discouragement, they returned to camp. There they found Mary Fielding Smith on her knees, pleading for God to help them in this search, since the loss of the oxen would mean further delay in reaching their destination.
Arising from prayer, this youthful pioneer mother told her brother and her son to have breakfast and she would bring back the livestock. She started toward the river, despite her brother’s trying to persuade her that further search was futile. Ignoring first her brother and then a herdsman from a Missouri wagon train who tried to tell her that he had seen the oxen headed in the opposite direction that morning. Mary Smith continued her walk to the river. Then, turning at the bank, she motioned her brother and son to join her. As they did, they found the oxen fastened to a clump of willows, hidden from sight. Someone had apparently left them there, planning to return after the pioneer group had moved on.
The second experience also involved the loss of an ox and the ill treatment of Mary Fielding Smith by a wagon master who had had personal differences with her. Whenever people are thrown together in such a manner as they were in pioneer companies, tempers in some are prone to flare, and frictions may develop. Almost every boy who has attended a scout camp or national guard camp, or girl a girl’s camp, is aware of this problem.
So, it was almost inevitable that friction would arise among pioneer companies.
The difference of opinion in this case had arisen from the fact that the supervisor had felt Widow Smith was not prepared with sufficient supplies and equipment to reach the valley and that she would be a burden upon any company she joined. Finally, he concluded, “I will have to carry you along or leave you on the way.” To which Mary Fielding Smith replied, “I will beat you to the valley and will ask no help from you either.” And thus the verbal battle lines were drawn and the company set off. All proceeded about as well as possible until about midway between the Platte and the Sweetwater Rivers, at which time one of Sister Smith’s oxen laid down in the yoke as if poisoned. To all outward appearances the ox was in the throes of death. It stiffened out spasmodically, and all supposed it would die momentarily. The wagons behind were also brought to a stop as the captain of the company came running forward, “blustering about, as if the world were about at an end.”
“There,” said he, “I told you you would have to be helped and that you would be a burden on the company.” But in this he was mistaken. Producing a bottle of consecrated oil, Widow Smith asked her brother and James Lawson if they would please administer to the ox just as they would do to a sick person, for it was vital to her interest that the ox be restored. Her earnest plea was complied with. These brethren poured oil on the head of the ox and then laid their hands upon it and rebuked the power of the destroyer. Immediately the ox got up and within a very few moments again pulled in the yoke as if nothing had ever happened. This was a great astonishment to the company. Before the company had proceeded very far, another of her oxen fell down as the first, but with the same treatment he also got up, and this was repeated the third time.
Through all of these proceedings young Joseph F. was an observer, sensing the power of the priesthood being exhibited by his uncle, but also noting the deep faith of his widowed mother, a woman who was to leave a deep impression upon his life. Four years after entering the valley—at the age of fourteen—he was to lose his mother to death, and then was without father or mother.
During his fifteenth year Joseph F. Smith was ordained an elder, endowed, and sent to serve as a missionary in Hawaii. There he was to experience illness and discouragement far beyond that which is normal for a young man of his age. But with these experiences came an increased deepening of his soul and a broadening of his capacities as new spiritual insights were added in his life. One such experience was a dream, significantly centering in a family experience. This dream occurred during a time in his mission when he was greatly depressed. “I was … entirely friendless, except the friendship of a poor, benighted … people. I felt as if I was so debased in my condition of poverty, lack of intelligence and knowledge, just a boy, that I hardly dared look a … man in the face.”
The dream included many things, but central to the dream was the presentation of a male child to the Prophet Joseph Smith. In the dream he saw his father and his mother, and it was his mother who handed him the child. He carried the child to the Prophet Joseph, handed it to him, and then stepped back. Then Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Brigham Young—who was still alive at the time of the dream—formed a triangle around the babe, blessed it, and then the Prophet offered the baby again to Joseph F. When the young elder had presented the baby to the Prophet Joseph, he had thrust his hand up against the chest of the Prophet to test the reality of the presence of the Prophet. Upon returning for the baby, Joseph F. had determined to test again whether this were just a dream or a reality.
“I wanted to know what it meant. So I purposely thrust myself up against the Prophet. I felt the warmth of his stomach. He smiled at me as if he comprehended my purpose. He delivered the child to me and I returned it to my mother, laid it on her lap.
“When I awoke that morning I was a man, although only a boy. There was not anything in the world that I feared. … That vision, that manifestation and witness that I enjoyed at that time has made me what I am, if I am anything that is good, or clean, or upright before the Lord. That has helped me out of every trial and through every difficulty.”
It is rather evident from President Smith’s comments that his main interest in this experience lies in the fact that his testimony of the Prophet at that time was intensified and expanded, but one cannot help noticing one detail from that dream, a detail upon which President Smith does not comment, and that is the presentation of a male child to the Prophet Joseph Smith for a blessing. In light of the fact that two of President Smith’s sons were eventually to come into the Council of the Twelve, and one of these Joseph Fielding Smith, was later to become president of the Church to bear, as it were, the mantle of the prophet in succession from Joseph Smith, one might wonder if there was not also prophetic dimension to this dream that he received as a young missionary, “alone on a mat, away up in the mountains of Hawaii.”
Life and time have a way of changing many things, just as it did in the case of Joseph F. Smith. He was not destined to be alone nor deprived of a family all of his life. When he was twenty years of age, he married his first wife, Levira Clark, shortly before departing for his second mission—this time to Great Britain. During this mission he had the comfort of knowing that someone waited for him. This one wife was later to be joined by five other wives (living as he did during the days of the practice of plural marriage) and forty-eight children. His family was never exceedingly wealthy, but it was blessed with love, the kind of love that develops when people have to learn to rely on love alone. Two of the most beautiful illustrations of this love come from his early life as a father, at which time he was existing on a wage of $3 per day—and that was in commodities.
One Christmas experience is especially poignant. After describing his destitute circumstances and his feeling that all about him seemed to have so much, he describes a trip he made to town one day before Christmas to buy “something for my chicks.”
“I wanted something to please them, and to mark the Christmas day from all other days—but not a cent to do it with! I walked up and down Main Street, looking into the shop windows … everywhere—and then slunk out of sight of humanity and sat down and wept like a child until my poured-out grief relieved my aching heart; and after awhile returned home, as empty as when I left, and played with my children, grateful and happy … for them.”
The other experience is the loss of his firstborn, a little daughter by the name of Mercy Josephine, whom he affectionately referred to as “Dodo.” Little Dodo, the eldest sister of President Joseph Fielding Smith, died when she was three. After watching over her night after night, holding her, and encouraging her, her father grieved when one entire night she went sleepless. The next morning when she said, “I’ll sleep tonight, papa,” the words “shot through my heart.” Shortly thereafter, she died. The sorrow of his heart can only be adequately expressed in the words of a letter written at that time to his wife Edna.
“I scarcely dare to trust myself to write, even now my heart aches, and my mind is all chaos; if I should murmur, may God forgive me, my soul has been and is tried with poignant grief, my heart is bruised and wrenched almost asunder. I am desolate, my home seems desolate and almost dreary … my own sweet Dodo is gone! I can scarcely believe it and my heart asks, can it be? I look in vain, I listen, no sound, I wander through the rooms, all are vacant, lonely, desolate, deserted. I look down the garden walk, peer around the house, look here and there for a glimpse of a little golden, sunny head and rosy cheeks, but no, alas, no pattering little footsteps. No beaming little black eyes sparkling with love for papa; no sweet little enquiring voice … no soft dimpled hands clasping me around the neck, no sweet rosy lips returning in childish innocence my fond embrace and kisses, but a vacant little chair. Her little toys are concealed, her clothes put by, and only the one desolate thought forcing its crushing leaden weight upon my heart—she is not here, she is gone! … I am almost wild, and O God only knows how much I loved my girl, and she the light and joy of my heart.”
Forty-six years later, just two years before his own death, President Smith wrote in his journal, “This is the 49th anniversary of the birth of my firstborn child, Mercy Josephine. A most beautiful and intelligent little girl. She died June 6, 1870, nearly three years old, leaving but the memory of the sweetest, happiest, loveliest three years of my whole life up to that time. O how I loved and cherished that little angel of love and light.”
What generation gap could ever interrupt the flow of a love like that? Or who could ever doubt the sincerity or importance of this statement of President Smith’s, made shortly after becoming the prophet of the Lord:
“There can be no genuine happiness separate and apart from the home, and every effort made to sanctify and preserve its influence is uplifting to those who toil and sacrifice for its establishment. Men and women often seek to substitute some other life for that of the home; they would make themselves believe that the home means restraint; that the highest liberty is the fullest opportunity to move about at will. There is no happiness without service, and there is no service greater than that which converts the home into a divine institution, and which promotes and preserves family life.
“Those who shirk home responsibilities are wanting in an important element of social well-being. They may indulge themselves in social pleasures, but their pleasures are superficial and result in disappointment later in life.”
Joseph F. Smith Highlights (1838–1918)
Nov. 13, 1838
Born in Far West, Missouri
Father, Hyrum Smith, is martyred
Drives ox team across plains
Mother dies; he becomes orphan
Serves mission to Hawaii
Marries Levira A. Smith; called to high council of Salt Lake Stake
Serves mission to Great Britain
Member, Territorial House of Representatives
Ordained apostle and counselor in First Presidency
President, European Mission
Second term, President of European Mission
Becomes second counselor to John Taylor in First Presidency
In voluntary exile—laboring in southwest United States, Mexico, Hawaii, Canada, eastern United States
Sustained president of Church
Becomes first president to tour Europe
Nov. 19, 1918