“Joseph Fielding Smith: A Gentle Disciple,” Tambuli, Dec. 1993, 27
“There is no cure for the ills of the world except the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope for peace, for temporal and spiritual prosperity, and for an eventual inheritance in the kingdom of God is found only in and through the restored gospel.”
So said President Joseph Fielding Smith, tenth President of the Church, as he bore his testimony to the world for the last time in the April 1972 general conference. He died three months later.
President Smith’s testimony was nurtured by a lifetime of service to the Lord he loved and was founded in a unique Church inheritance: His father was Joseph F. Smith, who was President of the Church from 1901 to 1918, and his grandfather was the Prophet Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum.
Joseph Fielding Smith was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on 19 July 1876 to Joseph F. and Julina Lambson Smith. His devotion to the Lord began when he was a young boy.
“I was trained at my mother’s knee to love the Prophet Joseph Smith and to love my Redeemer,” he later said. “I never knew my Grandmother [Mary Fielding] Smith. I have always regretted that, because she was one of the most noble women who ever lived: but I did know her good sister, my Aunt Mary Thompson, and as a boy I used to go and visit her in her home and sit at her knee, where she told me stories about the Prophet Joseph Smith, and, oh, how grateful I am for that experience.”
As a youth he decided early to read the scriptures. According to his sister Edith, he had read the Book of Mormon twice by the time he was ten.
“When I was a small boy, too young to hold the Aaronic Priesthood,” President Smith remembered, “my father placed a copy of the Book of Mormon in my hands with the request that I read it. I received this Nephite record with thanksgiving and applied myself to the task which had been assigned to me. There are certain passages that have been stamped upon my mind, and I have never forgotten them.”
Those early experiences with the scriptures helped prepare Joseph Fielding Smith for a lifetime of gospel scholarship and scriptural contributions. He served as Church Historian for forty-nine years and was recognized throughout the Church for his exceptional knowledge of Church history and doctrine. He published his first book in 1901, and his last in 1970. In the intervening sixty-nine years, he wrote a total of twenty-five books, some of which have become classics for students of the scriptures and of Church history.
In addition to his work as a historian and scholar, Joseph Fielding Smith saw a fulfillment of his patriarchal blessing, which said in part: “It shall be thy duty to sit in counsel with thy brethren and to preside among the people.” In 1910, at the age of thirty-three, he was called to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and for more than sixty years he served faithfully as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He held the heavy responsibility of being President of the Quorum of the Twelve for nineteen years, and for five of those years he also served as a Counselor in the First Presidency. Then on 23 January 1970, at the age of ninety-three, he was ordained and set apart as President of the Church. He served until his death on 2 July 1972, at the age of ninety-five.
Because of President Smith’s uncompromising defense of the Lord’s laws and principles, some have thought of him as being somewhat austere. However, nothing was further from his true character. Those close to him knew him to be deeply considerate of others and extraordinarily generous with his sympathy, love, and forgiveness.
A statement attributed to more than one of his friends bears this out. “If I were to be judged by any of my fellowmen,” they said, “let it be Joseph Fielding Smith.”
In 1956 members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles published a tribute to him. Among other things they said:
“We only wish that the entire Church could feel the tenderness of his soul and his great concern over the welfare of the unfortunate and those in distress. He loves all the Saints and never ceases to pray for the sinner.
“With remarkable discernment, he seems to have but two measures in arriving at final decisions. What are the wishes of the First Presidency? Which is best for the kingdom of God?”
In addition to his serious and studious nature, there was a lighter side to President Smith’s personality. He had a ready sense of humor that he exercised frequently and spontaneously.
For example, on one occasion President Smith returned from a conference assignment in California with his lunch sack filled with olives he had picked. Delighted with his treasure, and always eager to share, he asked one of his brethren if he had ever “tasted an olive right off the tree.” His unsuspecting victim had not, so he took a healthy bite into one of the fresh olives. This proved to be a rather bitter experience, and as the brother’s face puckered up, President Smith asked innocently, “What’s the matter? Did you get a bad one? Here, you had better try another one.”
In addition to this Church work, Joseph Fielding Smith diligently assumed the responsibilities of husband and father. In April 1898, when he was twenty-two years old, he married Louie Emyla Shurtliff. After being married for only a year, he was ordained a seventy by his father on 12 May 1899, and left the next day for the mission field. Surely, making such a personal sacrifice was no easier for Elder Smith to do then than it would be for us to do now. He accepted his call, labored in the Nottingham Conference for two years, and returned home in June 1901.
Upon his return, Joseph accepted employment with the Church historian’s office, where he ultimately devoted a great part of his life. Further responsibility came to him in 1907, when he was appointed secretary of the Genealogical Society of Utah.
Two daughters were born to Joseph Fielding Smith and his first wife, Louie, during their nearly ten years together. Then, two years before he became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his wife died.
On 2 November 1908, he married Ethel Georgina Reynolds; she became the mother of five sons and four daughters and was his companion for twenty-nine years. She died 26 August 1937.
Elder Smith then married Jessie Evans, a well-known vocalist and member of the Tabernacle Choir, on 12 April 1938. A born entertainer with a vivacious and cheerful nature, she was at Elder Smith’s side for thirty-three years, buoying him up and caring for him with a love and devotion that was truly beautiful. She lived to see him become President of the Church and traveled extensively with him on his many Church assignments—sharing not only his rigorous schedule, but also the loving reception of the Saints of many lands. When she succumbed to a heart ailment on 3 August 1971, millions shared President Smith’s loneliness and sorrow.
At that difficult time, President Harold B. Lee, who served President Smith as a Counselor in the First Presidency, expressed compassion to the prophet over his loss. President Smith assured his friend that the Lord would give him strength to continue in his duties: “I’ve been through this before, you know,” he said.
Perhaps the best description of a person comes from those who live with him. In 1932 his wife Ethel said:
“You ask me to tell you of the man I know. I have often thought when he is gone people will say, ‘He is a very good man, sincere, orthodox, etc.’ They will speak of him as the public knows him; but the man they have in mind is very different from the man I know. The man I know is a kind, loving husband and father whose greatest ambition in life is to make his family happy, entirely forgetful of self in his efforts to do this. He is the man that lulls to sleep the fretful child, who tells bedtime stories to the little ones, who is never too tired or too busy to sit up late at night or to get up early in the morning to help the older children solve the perplexing school problems. When illness comes the man I know watches tenderly over the afflicted one and waits upon him. It is their father for whom they cry, feeling his presence a panacea for all ills. It is his hands that bind up the wounds, his arms that give courage to the sufferer, his voice that remonstrates with them gently when they err, until it becomes their happiness to do the thing that will make him happy.
“The man I know is most gentle, and if he feels that he has been unjust to anyone the distance is never too far for him to go and, with loving words or kind deeds, erase the hurt. He welcomes gladly the young people to his home and is never happier than when discussing with them topics of the day—sports or whatever interests them most. He enjoys a good story and is quick to see the humor of a situation, to laugh and to be laughed at, always willing to join in any wholesome activity.
“The man I know is unselfish, uncomplaining, considerate, thoughtful, sympathetic, doing everything within his power to make life a supreme joy for his loved ones. That is the man I know.”
One of President Smith’s sons gave this poignant insight into his father’s character and to the source of President Smith’s great inner strength:
“As children, so frequently we would hear him say, ‘If only the people in the world would understand the trials, the tribulations, the sins our Lord took upon himself for our benefit.’ Whenever he would refer to this, tears would come into his eyes.
“A few years ago, as I sat alone with my father in his study, I observed that he had been in deep meditation. I hesitated to break the silence, but finally he spoke. ‘Oh, my son, I wish you could have been with me last Thursday as I met with my Brethren in the temple. Oh, if you could have heard them testify of their love for their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.’ And then he lowered his head, and tears streamed from his face and dropped to his shirt. Then, after many seconds, without as much as raising his head, but moving his head back and forth, he said, ‘Oh, how I love my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!’”
The man the world and the Church knew never let advancing age deter him from his assignments. During his presidency, he continued to travel and share his testimony of the gospel. The Church held the first area conference—in Manchester, England; the Ogden and Provo [Utah] temples were dedicated; the first stake in Asia—Tokyo Japan—was created; Mondays were set aside for family home evenings; the Taiwan Mission was opened; the Church’s Social Services Department was reorganized; the Italy North Mission was opened; the Sunday School was reorganized; and the Church’s Internal Communications Department was established.
In his last conference address, this kind, loving servant of the Lord spoke from personal experience when he said, “There is no work that any of us can engage in that is as important as preaching the gospel and building up the Church and the kingdom of God on earth.”
Indeed, President Smith dedicated his life to that most important work. “All my life I have studied and pondered the principles of the gospel and sought to live the laws of the Lord,” he said. “As a result, there has come into my heart a great love for him, and for his work, and for all those who seek to further his purposes in the earth.”
Joseph Fielding Smith Highlights (1876–1972)
July 19: Is born in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Is ordained an elder.
April 26: Marries Louise Emyla Shurtliff.
Serves a mission in England.
Serves as a clerk in the Church historian’s office.
Becomes assistant Church historian.
His first wife, Louie, dies.
April 7: Is ordained an Apostle by his father.
Becomes counselor in the Salt Lake Temple presidency.
Serves as Church historian.
Becomes president of the Genealogical Society.
His second wife, Ethel, dies.
April 12: Marries Jessie Ella Evans.
Tours Europe prior to World War II and directs the evacuation of all non-European missionaries.
Becomes president of the Salt Lake Temple.
Becomes President of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Tours the Far East and dedicates four countries for the preaching of the gospel.
Becomes a Counselor to President David O. McKay in the First Presidency.
Is sustained as President of the Church.
Presides over the first area conference of the Church—in Manchester, England. His third wife, Jessie Evans Smith, dies.
July 2: Dies in Salt Lake City.
Joseph Fielding McConkie, “Joseph Fielding Smith,” in The Presidents of the Church, edited by Leonard J. Arrington, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986.
“Joseph Fielding Smith,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
“Joseph Fielding Smith,” in My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth: Readings in Church History, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980.
Bryant S. Hinckley, “Joseph Fielding Smith,” Improvement Era, June 1932, page 459.