Joseph F. Smith: Independence and willing obedience characteristics of gentle prophet

Joseph F. Smith - the name tells a story. The "Joseph" honored his uncle, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and also his grandfather, Joseph Smith Sr. The "F.," for Fielding, honored his mother, Mary Fielding Smith, wife of Patriarch Hyrum Smith.

Joseph F. Smith was born Nov. 13, 1838, in a small house across the street from the temple site in Far West, Mo. It was during the height of the Missouri persecutions. His father, Hyrum; his uncle, Joseph; and others were thenO imprisoned in nearby Liberty.In January 1839, the young baby was driven to Liberty in a wagon with his mother, Mary, and his aunt, Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet. Hyrum first held his infant son while imprisoned in the Liberty Jail.

Soon after, Mary, her baby, and the five children of Hyrum's deceased first wife, Jerusha, were forced to leave Missouri under the threat of Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs' order of expulsion. Aided by Robert B. Thompson, the husband of her sister, Mercy Fielding Thompson, Mary and the children safely crossed the Mississippi River, arriving in Quincy, Ill., in February.

Two months later, they were joined by Hyrum who, with the others, had been released from the Liberty Jail. A mature Joseph F. Smith always resented bitterly the callous treatment his family received from Missouri's officialdom.

After Hyrum settled his family in Commerce, Ill., later renamed Nauvoo, Joseph F. and the other children enjoyed the freedom and security of living in a community dominated by the Latter-day Saints and in a home characterized by love and faith. The position of their father as one of the high leaders of the Church also accorded them a status of respect and prestige among their neighbors.

The son's sense of security and status was shattered on June 27, l844, when his father and uncle were murdered in the Carthage Jail. He never forgot seeing his father for the last time when Hyrum, on his way to Carthage on horseback, picked him up, kissed him and set him down. Nor could he forget the terror of hearing a neighbor rap on the window at night to say "Sister Smith, your husband has been killed." And the sight of his father and uncle lying in their coffins in the Mansion House never faded from memory.

The boy became a man almost overnight.

As Mary Fielding Smith and her family joined the exodus from Nauvoo, the teamster of one of her wagons was young Joseph F. Smith, age 7 years, 7 months. He was orphaned at 13 when his mother died; and before turning 16, he left on a mission to the Sandwich, later called the Hawaiian, Islands. Within three months after arriving in Honolulu, he spoke the native tongue fluently, a gift of language conferred upon him by Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde of the Twelve who set him apart. He was in the islands three years, serving successively as a conference president on the islands of Maui, Hawaii and Molokai.

Beginning at age 21, he served another three-year mission, this time in the British Isles; and at age 25, he was called to Hawaii again to serve as a translator for Elders Ezra T. Benson, great-grandfather of President Ezra Taft Benson, and Lorenzo Snow who had been appointed to resolve problems in the islands created by the apostate, Walter Murray Gibson.

A defining experience in the life of Joseph F. Smith occurred as the party's schooner anchored a mile off Lahaina on the island of Maui. Turbulence and a high wind convinced Joseph F., who had learned to navigate these waters while on his mission, that it would be dangerous under those circumstances to send a landing boat through the narrow, reef guarded channel.

Anxious to begin their work, the apostles decided to go anyway, and invited Elder Smith to accompany them. He said he would go if directed by priesthood authority, otherwise he would not because it was too dangerous. Unwilling to order him to go, the apostles left Joseph F. aboard the schooner and started ashore with members of the crew. As the landing boat crossed the reef, it capsized. Lorenzo Snow, who was drowned and then later revived, said that at the moment Joseph F. Smith refused to go on the boat unless ordered by priesthood authority, it was made known to him the young man would one day be the president of the Church.

Staunch independence tempered by willing obedience as reflected in this incident were qualities that appeared repeatedly in the life of Joseph F. Smith.

Following a meeting in Salt Lake City on July 1, 1866, attended by several General Authorities, President Brigham Young, acting on a spiritual impulse, ordained Joseph F. Smith an apostle and set him apart as a counselor to the First Presidency.

Fifteen months later, he was sustained as a member of the Twelve, but continued to serve as a counselor to the First Presidency until the death of Brigham Young on Aug. 29, 1877. Meanwhile, he served as the president of the European Mission beginning in 1874; and was appointed again to that position in 1877 but soon after was called home following the death of President Young.

When the First Presidency was reconstituted in October 1880, after a three-year lapse following the death of President Young, Joseph F. Smith was sustained as the second counselor in the First Presidency. He served in that position throughout the administrations of Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff and during most of the administration of President Lorenzo Snow, when he was called and sustained as the first counselor following the death of President George Q. Cannon. However, he never was set apart to that position because of the intervening death of President Lorenzo Snow on Oct. 10, 1901. He was ordained and set apart as the sixth president of the Church a week later on Oct. 17, 1901.

During most of his life, President Joseph F. Smith endured uncommon pressure. Orphaned at such a young age and called so often to serve in the mission field, he and his growing family lived most frugally. Often they had the means only for the bare necessities. One Christmas he wept openly as he saw the abundance in shop windows downtown, knowing he lacked the money to buy even the most meager gifts for his family.

In time, his family grew to include 48 children whom he called "the greatest of all earthly joys." The affection he lavished on them and their mothers became legendary. Regardless of the time or place, he always embraced and kissed members of the family when he saw them. It seemed he wanted to compensate in some way for the affection he had missed as an orphan.

The most profound pressures he endured came from his leadership roles in the Church. Especially trying were the months he spent in exile in Hawaii in the 1880s during the dark days of the underground. Later, at home, while sought by officials for alleged illegal cohabitation, he had to live furtively, sometimes using disguises and pseudonyms to avoid detection. And soon after his ordination as the prophet, he and the Church became embroiled in a nationally publicized controversy arising from the hearings in Washington D.C. over the seating of Senator-elect Reed Smoot of the Twelve. Here he was called as a witness and subjected to the most intense, accusatory questioning, which falsely implied a deliberate attempt to skirt the Manifesto and the laws forbidding polygamy.

At home, he also was attacked repeatedly by a Salt Lake newspaper, published and edited by avowed enemies of the Church and of President Smith. These attacks reached a crescendo in April 1910 when the prophet's son and namesake, Joseph Fielding Smith, was called to the Twelve. Because there were several Smiths among the General Authorities at the time, the critics charged the call was based on nepotism, not revelation. In blunt and distorted articles, the paper attacked the Prophet and his family ruthlessly.

In time, however, these attacks moderated and ultimately were discontinued. In the last years of President Smith's life, a period of understanding developed between the Church and others in the community. His white hair and beard, his benign bearing, his eloquence and his loving qualities, which had smoothed the fiery aspects of his personality evident in the early years, had made him an object of universal respect and admiration.

It was during his last days that he received the remarkable vision of the Savior's visit to the spirits of the dead. Included now as the 138th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, it stands as a fitting capstone to his prophetic ministry that ended with his death in Salt Lake City on Nov. 19, 1918.


Milestones in life of Joseph F. Smith

Nov. 13, 1838: Born in Far West, Mo.

1846-48: Drove a team of oxen across the plains, beginning at age 7.

1854-7: Filled a mission to Hawaiian Islands.

1860-63: Filled a mission to the British Isles.

1865-74: Served as member of the Territorial House of Representatives.

July 1, 1866: Ordained apostle and named counselor to First Presidency.

1874-75: Presided over European Mission.

Oct. 10, 1880: Sustained as second counselor to President John Taylor.

April 7, 1889: Sustained as second counselor to President Wilford Woodruff.

Sept. 13, 1898: Sustained as second counselor, and later as first counselor, to President Lorenzo Snow.

Oct. 17, 1901: Ordained and set apart as president of the Church.

Dec. 23, 1905: Dedicated monument at Joseph Smith birthplace in Sharon, Vt.

1906: Was president when Church cleared entirely of debt.

1913-1918: Provided leadership to Church during period of prosperity when many buildings were erected, including Church Administration Building, Bishop's Building.

June 1, 1915: Broke ground for the Hawaii Temple.

Oct. 3, 1918: Received Vision of the Redemption of the Dead, now D&C 138.

Nov. 19, 1918: Died in Salt Lake City at age 80.

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