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Joseph Fielding Smithby Amelia McConkie and Mark L. McConkie
Joseph Fielding Smith (1876-1972), the tenth President of the Church, was born July 19, 1876, in Salt Lake City, the firstborn son of Joseph F. Smith, an apostle who would become the sixth President of the Church, and Julina Lambson, the first of his six plural wives. His grandfather was the Patriarch Hyrum Smith. Under the tutelage of his parents, Joseph Fielding, as he became known in the Church, grew up with a deep affection for the Prophet Joseph Smith and his teachings. Upon learning to read, he constantly studied Church magazines, pamphlets, and other publications, reading the Book of Mormon twice by age ten. A few years later, he read the lengthy History of the Church, published in the Millennial Star. In his late teens he studied the New Testament in transit to and from his merchandizing job at ZCMI (Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution), the Church department store. He built the lasting scholarship on this foundation of constant learning that later distinguished his prolific writings.
He married Louie Emily (Emyla) Shurtliff in the Salt Lake Temple on April 26, 1898. One year later, he accepted a two-year mission call in the Nottingham conference of the British Mission (1899-1901). Upon his return, he secured employment in the Church Historian's office. In April 1906 he was appointed an assistant Church historian.
As antipolygamy sentiment raged in the early 1900s, Joseph Fielding felt the injustice of the attacks upon the Church and the men whom he knew and loved, such as his father. Some of his first publications were defenses of historical Church doctrine and practice, including Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage (1905) and Origin of the "Reorganized" Church: The Question of Succession (1907).
In March 1908 his wife, Louie, died leaving him with two daughters. That November he married Ethel Georgina Reynolds, who bore him five sons and four daughters. Ethel died in August 1937, and he married Jessie Ella Evans in April 1938. She died on August 3, 1971, one year before President Smith.
Family influence powerfully shaped Joseph Fielding Smith's feeling about religion and his understanding of the gospel. In his later years he often commented that he had been tutored by his father, who was called to preside over the Church when Joseph Fielding was only twenty-five. "I have a great love for my father," he said. "It was marvelous how the words of living light and fire flowed from him" (remarks at Smith family reunion, Nov. 13, 1970; copies in family possession). "In all my life," he continued, "whenever I have been tempted, one thought has always come to me. "What would my father think of that?"' A year later, dramatizing the impact of his father on his own gospel scholarship, he said, "I feel a closeness to my father, and my grandfather, and my granduncle the Prophet [Joseph Smith] himself, and to the other early brethren of this dispensation. I believe what they believed and am sure that in large measure I think as they thought" (fireside speech to Latter-day Saint Student Association, Nov. 21, 1971, LDS Institute of Religion, University of Utah).
Family influences in turn became the molding forces in the lives of Joseph Fielding's children, who tell of his constant efforts to teach them. At meals, in family gatherings, while walking children to school or church, and later in letters to those in the military and on missions, he was always instructing his children in gospel principles. His letters, like his sermons, were filled with scriptural quotations, often interpreting world events or family activities in terms of what the scriptures said. Through these constant teachings he earned what he considered to be one of life's greatest blessings: all of his children remained faithful Latter-day Saints. Each married in the temple, and each of his sons served a mission for the Church. Following Joseph Fielding's death, Harold B. Lee, his successor as President of the Church, said, "Truly, the greatest monument to him is the great posterity which he has given to the world" (Letter to the Joseph Fielding Smith family, July 14, 1972, Salt Lake City, Historical Department of the Church [HDC]).
When Joseph Fielding Smith was ordained an apostle on April 7, 1910, the Salt Lake Tribune published criticisms against him, his father, and the Smith family for nepotism. This vilification ignored his qualifications for the apostleship. In this difficult time, he took refuge in his family, which had special reason to have confidence in the call because of a revelation to his mother that her son would become an apostle (Bruce R. McConkie, pp. 24-31). In a patriarchal blessing he received at nineteen, Joseph Fielding Smith had also been told, "It shall be thy duty to sit in council with thy brethren, and to preside among the people" (John Smith, Patriarchal Blessing to Joseph Fielding Smith, Jan. 19, 1896; copy in LDS Church Historian's Library).
During his apostolic tenure, amid many responsibilities and duties, Joseph Fielding Smith was best known, and is best remembered, as a theologian and gospel scholar. President Heber J. Grant called him "the best posted man on the scriptures of the General Authorities of the Church that we have" (Letter to Joseph Fielding Smith, Dec. 31, 1938, HDC). He published more books and articles than any other man who became President of the Church, though it was never his main intent to become an author. Many of his writings were discourses, answers to questions posed to him, instructions for Church leaders, and efforts to clarify common uncertainties.
One book, The Signs of the Times (1942), was published after requests mounted for copies of lectures he had given on the last days. The Restoration of All Things (1945) was a compilation of radio talks; the two-volume Church History and Modern Revelation (1953) was a manual of instruction for the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums; and the five-volume Answers to Gospel Questions (1957-1966) was a compilation of answers to gospel questions printed in Church magazines over a period of years.
At a time when many were concerned with the issues of organic evolution, Elder Smith published Man: His Origin and Destiny (1954), in which he provided a scriptural and theological defense of the Church position that mankind is the offspring of and placed on earth by God, not a product of random evolutionary processes. His calm throughout this intellectual storm showed both his serenity and wisdom.
He always built his sermons on scriptural themes. "I never did learn to deliver a discourse," he said, "without referring to the scriptures" (Joseph F. McConkie, pp. 44-45). In his sixty-two-year ministry as an apostle and prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith preached on almost every facet of the gospel. Few Latter-day Saints have spoken so emphatically on the fact that God is a personal being, that he is the creator of all things, that he is literally the Father of Jesus Christ, and that the Atonement of Christ grows out of the fact of his divine Sonship. His defense of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the doctrine of a latter-day restoration fulfilled a promise in a second patriarchal blessing that his teachings and writings would stand as a "wall of defense against those who are seeking and will seek to destroy the evidence of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith" (Joseph D. Smith. Patriarchal Blessing to Joseph Fielding Smith, May 11, 1913; copies in family possession).
He explained the doctrine of the "divine law of witnesses" (CR, Apr. 1930) with a force and clarity not found elsewhere in the literature of the Latter-day Saints (see Witnesses, Law of). The Way to Perfection (1931) and Elijah the Prophet and His Mission (1957) stand as classic expositions of the doctrines of salvation for the dead. His compilation Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1938) is one of the most widely used reference texts in LDS literature. Essentials in Church History (1922) and The Life of Joseph F. Smith (1938) are examples of interpreting history through scriptural and prophetic eyes.
Yet, while he is remembered as a gospel scholar, Joseph Fielding Smith's love of life and those he worked with was broader than his scholarship. When President Smith was ninety-three, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley said, "I have never heard him say a mean or evil or unkind thing . He speaks generously of those he discusses." He repeatedly said, "I love my brethren," and with regard to the wayward, he urged giving "them the benefit of the doubt; there are two sides to the story." His counsel to bishops was similar: "If you make any mistakes in judgment, make them on the side of mercy." He frequently financed missions, paid the hospital bills of the sick, and sent groceries to the needy. He always disciplined his children with love, avoiding physical punishment, preferring to look them in the eyes and say, "I wish my children would be good." "No spanking or whipping," said one daughter, "could accomplish what this kindly father did with love" (Joseph F. McConkie, pp. 71-90).
Joseph Fielding Smith became President of the Church on January 23, 1970, following the death of President David O. McKay. His two-and-one-half-year tenure was marked by steady missionary growth; the dedication of the Ogden and Provo temples; some significant organizational restructuring, including reorganizations in the Church Sunday School system and the Church Department of Social Services; and a revamping of portions of the Church internal communication systems, which led to the consolidation of all general Church magazines into three.
After a long life of scholarship and influence, one of his most significant acts was his reaffirmation, as President of the Church, of the doctrines that he had taught throughout his apostolic ministry. "What I have taught and written in the past," he said in the October general conference of 1970, "I would teach and write again under the same circumstances" (CR, Oct. 1970, p. 5). He died July 2, 1972, in Salt Lake City.
Shown here (c. 1970) with his third wife, Jessie Evans Smith. They were married in 1938, and she was famous as a singer. Joseph Fielding Smith was the tenth President of the Church, serving in that position from 1970 to 1972.
McConkie, Bruce R. "Joseph Fielding Smith, Apostle, Prophet, Father in Israel." Ensign 2 (Aug. 1972):23-31.
McConkie, Joseph F. True and Faithful: The Life Story of Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, 1971.
Smith, Joseph Fielding, Jr., and John J. Stewart. The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, 1972.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company