“Joseph F. Smith: The Blessings of Family Relationships,” Tambuli, June 1993, 26
In an age when family values often come under attack and when rifts between parents and children are commonplace, it is encouraging to see families who feel a close bond of love with one another.
Such were the feelings Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the Church, had for his family. Significantly, during his administration, President Smith placed 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.
By the time young Joseph was in his early teens, he had lost both of his parents. Perhaps it was because of this loss that he valued so highly the security and love of a family.
Joseph’s father, Hyrum Smith, was the Prophet Joseph Smith’s older brother. Both the Prophet and Hyrum were shot and killed by a mob when young Joseph was only five years old. It is well known that Hyrum had been the Prophet Joseph’s great friend and support 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 for 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. Smith loved his father with a special devotion. 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.’” Although this occurred when the boy was only five years old, many years later he still remembered the terror of that night.
Two years after Hyrum’s death, Joseph F. Smith and his widowed mother, Mary Fielding Smith, set off across the plains of North America with many other Mormon pioneers. Sister Smith had not only her own two young children, but she was also caring for the five children of her slain husband and his first wife, who had died earlier. At age seven, Joseph drove the family’s ox team to Winter Quarters, Nebraska. At age nine, he drove the wagon on to the Salt Lake Valley.
During the time on the plains, young Joseph learned many lessons of faith from his mother. Upon awakening one morning, the Smiths found that their best team of oxen was missing. The young boy and his uncle, Joseph Fielding, set out and searched an entire morning in vain. Fatigued and discouraged, 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 cattle. She started toward the river, despite her brother’s protests 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 Fielding Smith continued walking to the river. Then, turning at the bank, she motioned to her brother and son to join her. As they did, they found the oxen tied to a clump of willows, hidden from sight. Someone had apparently put them there, planning to return after the pioneer group had moved on.
President Smith later said that this experience was “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.
Four years after they entered the Salt Lake Valley—when Joseph F. was thirteen years old—his mother died, leaving him without father or mother.
During his fifteenth year, Joseph F. Smith was ordained an elder, endowed, and sent to serve as a missionary in the Hawaiian Islands. There he experienced illness and discouragement far beyond that which is usual 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 on a family experience. This dream occurred during a time in his mission when he was greatly depressed. “I was … entirely friendless. … 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.”
In the dream, Joseph saw his uncle, the Prophet Joseph Smith; his father, Hyrum Smith; and his mother, Mary Fielding Smith. He was comforted, and his testimony of the Prophet and of the plan of salvation were strengthened: “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.”
Joseph F. Smith was not to be alone nor deprived of a family all of his life. When he was twenty years old, he married Levira Smith 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. He later married five other wives (living as they did during the days of the Church’s practice of plural marriage): Julina Lambson, Sarah Ellen Richards, Edna Lambson, Alice Ann Kimball, and Mary Taylor Schwartz. He became the father of forty-eight children. One son, Joseph Fielding Smith, grew up to become the tenth President of the Church.
A beautiful illustration of Joseph F. Smith’s love for his family comes from his early years as a father, when he was existing on a poverty wage and was paid only in commodities. In these destitute circumstances, he made a trip 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.”
Another experience illustrating his love for family occurred at the death of his firstborn, a little daughter, Mercy Josephine, whom he affectionately referred to as “Dodo.” Little Dodo died when she was three. After watching over her night after night, holding her, and encouraging her, Elder Smith grieved when she went sleepless one entire night. The next morning when she said, “I’ll sleep tonight, papa,” the words “shot through my heart.” Shortly thereafter, she died.
He expressed the sorrow of his heart in a letter: “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.”
For Joseph F. Smith, love of family was the highest joy. Shortly after becoming the prophet of the Lord, he said:
“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.”
In addition to making great contributions at home with his own family, Joseph F. Smith spent most of his life as a missionary or Church leader. After his first mission in the Hawaiian Islands at age fifteen, he served a three-year mission in Great Britain and was then ordained as an Apostle and counselor to the First Presidency at the age of twenty-seven. As an Apostle, he served as president of the European and British missions. At age forty-one, he again became a member of the First Presidency of the Church and served in the First Presidency for nearly forty years—half his lifetime—until his death at age eighty. Having served as a counselor to the First Presidency during the administration of Brigham Young, he also served as counselor in the First Presidency to John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. Then, in 1901, at age sixty-two, he became President of the Church.
During most of President Smith’s life, the Church was under great attack from the United States government because of its practice of plural marriage. President Smith became one of the Church’s most able defenders of the practice. For a time, he and other leaders went into voluntary exile—and it pained him to be unable to be with and care for his large family. Then, in 1888 and 1889, he went to Washington, D.C., attempting to negotiate with the United States government for relaxation of repressive laws against the Latter-day Saints.
After President Wilford Woodruff received the revelation known as the Manifesto, discontinuing the practice of plural marriage in 1890 (see OD 1), President Smith continued to work tirelessly to ease tensions between the Church and the government and to enhance public respect for the Church. President Smith presided over the Church during a time of great prosperity and growth. As prophet, he strengthened the role of priesthood quorums and emphasized the importance of the home.
One of President Joseph F. Smith’s greatest contributions to the Church was his forthright teaching of the gospel. While he served as prophet, he and his counselors in the First Presidency issued statements clarifying Church doctrine on such topics as the origin of man and the nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ. They also warned against false teachings. After his death, some of his most important messages were published as a book, entitled Gospel Doctrine.
His “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” has been accepted as scripture and is now found in section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 138]. On 3 October 1918, only six weeks before his death, President Smith received a vision in which he saw the Savior’s ministry in the spirit world during the short time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. (See 1 Pet. 3:18–20; 1 Pet. 4:6). President Smith witnessed the Savior ministering to the righteous Saints and prophets who had died; he also saw the Savior organizing missionary work to go forth among the spirits of the wicked and the unrepentant.
This wonderful revelation came to the aged prophet as he sat in his room, “pondering over the scriptures;
“And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world;
“And the great and wonderful love made manifest by the Father and the Son in the coming of the Redeemer into the world” (D&C 138:1–3).
In the vision, President Smith saw that “the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell” (D&C 138:23).
Thus, he had hope for the salvation of all who love the Lord—from his own cherished daughter “Dodo,” to every one of our Father’s children.
And through President Smith’s witness, all of us can have that same hope in the eternal nature of God, in His plan for our happiness, and in His promise to the faithful of the blessing of eternal family relationships.
Joseph F. Smith Highlights (1838–1918)
Nov. 13: Born in Far West, Missouri.
Father, Hyrum Smith, is martyred.
Drives ox team across plains to Salt Lake Valley.
Mother dies; he becomes an orphan.
Serves a mission to Hawaii.
Marries Levira A. Smith; called as high councilor.
Serves a mission to Great Britain.
Serves in Territorial House of Representatives.
July 1: Is ordained an Apostle and counselor to the First Presidency by President Brigham Young.
Serves as president, European and British missions.
October 10: Becomes Second Counselor to President John Taylor in the First Presidency.
Is in voluntary exile because of persecution over plural marriage. Labors in U.S., Mexico, Hawaii, and Canada.
Serves as congressional lobbyist for the Church in Washington, D.C.
April 7: Becomes Second Counselor to President Wilford Woodruff in the First Presidency.
September 13: Becomes Second Counselor to President Lorenzo Snow in the First Presidency. Later is sustained as First Counselor.
October 17: Sustained as President of the Church.
Tours Europe—the first Church President to do so.
October 3: Has vision of the redemption of the dead.
Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1969.
Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph F. Smith: Patriarch and Preacher, Prophet of God, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984.
Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986.