Church History
Joseph Fielding Smith

Joseph Fielding Smith

Joseph Fielding Smith served as the 10th President of the Church from 1970 until his death in 1972. He was born in 1876 to Julina Lambson Smith and Joseph F. Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who later became the 6th President of the Church. Joseph Fielding Smith spent his childhood assisting his mother, who was a licensed midwife, and working on the family farm with his father and brothers.1 Joseph’s father and relatives practiced plural marriage, and many went into hiding throughout the 1880s when an aggressive antipolygamy campaign by the United States government interrupted family life for many Saints. Joseph recalled that federal agents pursuing his father and other Church leaders frequently interrogated him, his family, and his neighbors. He remembered becoming “frightened by deputy marshals” by watching families being “scattered to the four winds,” especially while his father was away.2

Joseph Fielding Smith was married three times. He met Louie Shurtliff while studying at Latter-day Saints’ College, and the two were married in 1898. Louie gave birth to two daughters, but in 1908 she suffered complications during the pregnancy of a third child and died without delivering the baby.3 Eight months later, Joseph married Ethel Reynolds, and together they had nine children. In 1937, Ethel died of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving Joseph a widower for a second time.4 The following year, Joseph married Jessie Evans, an accomplished soloist in the Tabernacle Choir. Over the next 30 years, she often performed (sometimes in duets with Joseph) during their many travels in Church service.5

President Joseph Fielding Smith and Jessie Evans Smith

President Joseph Fielding Smith preparing music with Jessie Evans Smith, his wife and an accomplished singer.

Virtually all of Joseph’s adult life was dedicated to Church service. Shortly after his first marriage, he departed for a mission to England. While in his ancestors’ homeland, he answered his father’s request to research their family tree and gathered genealogical information from old parish records, sparking lifelong enthusiasm for family history.6 Upon his return, Joseph received an offer to work in the Church Historian’s Office, where he assisted in compiling current news about the Church and other reports. He often encountered materials written to defame or discredit the Church and its members, and he grew accustomed to countering misrepresentations with scriptural and historical information. Five years into his professional career, Joseph was appointed assistant Church historian and continued his historical research and writing for another 70 years.7

At age 33, Joseph was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. His apostolic ministry spanned six decades and included additional assignments as the librarian and later president of the Genealogical Society of Utah (from 1910 to 1961) and the Church Historian and Recorder (from 1921 to 1970).8 He wrote prolifically, penning numerous sermons; hundreds of articles on genealogical, doctrinal, and historical subjects; and 18 books. His compilation entitled Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith raised general familiarity with Joseph Smith’s thought and teachings. One year into his tenure as Church Historian and Recorder, Elder Smith published Essentials in Church History, which underwent 20 reprintings and remained a bestseller into the 1970s. Nonfiction writers of history at the time often wrote long and dense stories; Essentials in Church History departed sharply from this style by condensing longer narratives and presenting direct and plain assertions about past events, which greatly influenced how manuals and other materials were written for Church members. Elder Smith’s uncompromising commitment to gospel truth at the pulpit and on paper earned him a reputation as the foremost defender of the faith of his generation.9

Soon after the death of President David O. McKay in 1970, Joseph Fielding Smith was sustained as President of the Church. President Smith led a review of Church operations that improved the correlation of publications and communications, restructured departments at Church headquarters, and brought the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles into more administrative decision-making that previously had been reserved for the First Presidency. He also inaugurated area conferences to better connect General Authorities and international congregations.10 Having enjoyed good health throughout his life, President Smith was hospitalized for the first time at age 94. He carried on attending meetings and visiting with the Saints until shortly before his 96th birthday, when he quietly passed away on a Sunday evening in July 1972.11

For more information about the life of Joseph Fielding Smith, see the Prophets of the Restoration videos on or in the Gospel Library app.

Related Topics: Joseph F. Smith, George Albert Smith, Family History and Genealogy, Organic Evolution, Correlation

  1. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. and John J Stewart, The Life of Joseph Fielding Smith: Tenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 52.

  2. Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 39–42. See also Topic: Antipolygamy Legislation.

  3. Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 72, 75, 161–62.

  4. Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith: Gospel Scholar, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 140, 271; death certificate for Ethel Smith, Provo, Utah Co., UT, Aug. 26, 1937, no. 398, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City.

  5. Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith, 276–78.

  6. Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 79, 120–21.

  7. Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 126–27; Reid L. Neilson and Scott D. Marianno, “True and Faithful: Joseph Fielding Smith as Mormon Historian and Theologian,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 1 (2018), 14, 63–64. Between 1953 and 1967, Joseph Fielding Smith maintained a monthly feature of the Church’s magazine The Improvement Era titled “Your Question” that became one of the most widely read periodical features in the Church and totaled dozens of articles in response to reader questions; see Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 320.

  8. Smith and Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, 150; Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith, 368; Leonard J. Arrington, “The Founding of the LDS Church Historical Department, 1972,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 18, no. 2 (Fall 1992), 42, 45. The Church incorporated the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1895 and converted this institution into the Family History Department in 1987; see Topic: Family History and Genealogy.

  9. Neilson and Marianno, “True and Faithful,” 27–30.

  10. Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith, 464–65, 477, 479. See also Topic: Correlation.

  11. Gibbons, Joseph Fielding Smith, 476, 480, 486, 488, 493–94.