Joseph F. Smith - Beloved by members, strangers

Sixth Church president was last to have known Joseph Smith

In the office of Elder M. Russell Ballard are busts of the Prophet Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum and Hyrum's youngest son Joseph F. Smith. The latter is Elder Ballard's great-grandfather through his mother's line.

"As I look at the faces of these mighty prophets, I think I hear them saying, 'Russell, get going! Do more; work a little harder while you still have time.' "

Elder Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve made that remark in his March 2 keynote address for the BYU Church History Symposium sponsored by the Church History Department and BYU Religious Studies Center. The symposium's theme was "President Joseph F. Smith, Reflections on the Man and His Times." The opening of the two-day event was at the LDS Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City, while the Saturday sessions were at the BYU Conference Center in Provo.

Other reports from some of the 36 presentaions will be published in future editions of the Church News. The conference proceedings will be published in book form by the Religious Studies Center beginning next year.

Salt Lake Institute Choir sings "We Ever Pray for Thee (Our Prophet Dear)" as film footage of Presid
Salt Lake Institute Choir sings "We Ever Pray for Thee (Our Prophet Dear)" as film footage of President Joseph F. Smith is projected on screen. Elder M. Russell Ballard and Sister Barbara Ballard are on rostrum. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Elder Ballard noted that President Smith (born Nov. 13, 1838) was the last Church president to have personally known the Prophet Joseph Smith and that his life spanned the years from Nauvoo, Ill., to his death in November 1918 in the Salt Lake Valley. "The more I have read about him, the more I am amazed at how he did all that he did in his 80 years of life."

Elder M. Russell Ballard speaks at BYU Church History Symposium on the era of President Joseph F. Sm
Elder M. Russell Ballard speaks at BYU Church History Symposium on the era of President Joseph F. Smith. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Elder Ballard traced the forefathers of President Smith and spoke of their faith in God. "It is because of the faithful heritage he was raised in that he was so susceptible to the promptings of the Spirit through which he gained an unwavering testimony."

Elder Ballard said President Smith is a personal hero to him. He quoted a reminiscence of President Smith about the Prophet and Hyrum coming home from where they had been concealed from a mob. While Hyrum was changing his clothes, Joseph the Prophet "took me on his knee and trotted me a little and then looked at me a little more carefully and finally he said, 'Hyrum, what is the matter with Joseph here?' " The Prophet was concerned that young Joseph F. looked pale, and Hyrum replied that it was because he had been living on milk up to that time, being about 5 or 6 years in age.

Audience sings "Shall the Youth of Zion Falter" at keynote session of BYU Church History Symposium f
Audience sings "Shall the Youth of Zion Falter" at keynote session of BYU Church History Symposium featuring an address by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve about his great-grandfather, President Joseph F. Smith. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

"Joseph F. knew the leaders that we all reverence so much," Elder Ballard remarked. He knew them, and they knew him from his childhood."

Elder Ballard cited an experience recounted by Preston Nibley who, on a visit to Illinois, heard President Smith tell about his last embrace from his father, Hyrum. Brother Nibley wrote: "He pointed out to us the place in the road where he had stood as he watched his father and 'Uncle Joseph' ride away to Carthage on that fateful day in June 1844. 'This is the exact spot,' he said, 'where I stood when the brethren came riding up on their way to Carthage. Without getting off his horse, 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.' "

Later on that trip, Brother Nibley with his father, Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley, and President Smith, visited the Carthage Jail. A guide pointed out a stain on the floor said to be from the blood of Hyrum when he was martyred. "President Smith walked over and sat on the bed," Elder Ballard recounted. "He put his hands over his face and convulsively wept, until Brother Nibley could see the water dripping through his fingers. He then said, 'Charlie, take me out of here.' "

Elder Ballard told of the strength of Hyrum's widow, Mary Fielding Smith, who died at age 51 in the Salt Lake Valley leaving young Joseph an orphan. "Joseph F. was just 13, and as he describes himself in a note to a childhood friend, 'I was almost like a comet, a fiery meteor without attraction of gravitation to keep me balanced or guide me.' "

That was evident, Elder Ballard said, in an incident where Joseph F. defended his younger sister Martha Ann against a schoolmaster who was about to punish her with a leather strap for a minor infraction. "At that he came at me and was going to whip me, but instead of whipping me, I licked him, good and plenty," Joseph F. later recounted.

Elder Ballard commented, "This incident both ended Joseph's short formal education and launched his long ecclesiastical career." Shortly thereafter, he was sent at age 15 on a Church mission to Hawaii.

"My four years mission to the Sandwich Islands restored my equilibrium and fixed the laws and meets and bounds which have grounded my subsequent life," President Smith later wrote.

Elder Ballard said the experience prepared him for the many responsibilities he would have in Church leadership and spoke of the legacy Joseph F. left the Church members there.

It was reflected by Bishop Nibley, who described President Smith's reunion with his "beloved Hawaiian mama" in these words:

"Holding a few bananas as a gift, a frail 90-year-old blind woman approached calling 'Iosepa, Iosepa' [a Hawaiian form of the name Joseph]. Instantly, when he saw her, he ran to her and clasped her in his arms, hugged her and kissed her over and over again, patting her on the head and saying 'Mama, mama, my dear old mama!'

"And with tears streaming down his cheeks, he turned to me and said, 'Charlie, she nursed me when I was a boy, sick and without anyone to care for me. She took me in and was a mother to me.' "

Elder Ballard spoke of President Smith's service in the presiding councils of the Church. "His management of the financial affairs freed the Church from a million dollars of bond debt. He began the acquisition of historical sites and, with missionary zeal, developed visitors' centers and an information center on Temple Square. He authorized construction of the Church Administration Building and the Hotel Utah. He was a practical visionary, a builder, a fearless missionary and a witness of the Restoration."

President Smith introduced family home evening and himself was an example of love and dedication as a husband and father, Elder Ballard said.

"Joseph F.'s love for his children is reflected in these tender words at the death of his firstborn child, 3-year-old Mercy Josephine, whom he affectionately referred to as Dodo:

" '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. ... 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.' "

Elder Ballard remarked, "No leader has been more beloved as an apostle and president of the Church by members and strangers alike. Nor has his family forgotten him. Every year near his birthday we come together in family home evening filling the Monument Park Stake Center with his posterity. All come to remember him and to strengthen our resolve to live as he expects all of us to do."

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