As a teenager, he attended the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and his early ministry in the Church of Jesus Christ involved horse-and-buggy travel. Yet President Joseph Fielding Smith lived long enough that he often traveled to assignments by jet planes.
President Smith’s teachings are the subject of the course of study this year in Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society classes throughout the Church, covered in a newly published manual, the 13th in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series.
He was the inheritor of a rich legacy: His father was President Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the Church, and his grandfather was Hyrum Smith, brother to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his co-martyr at Carthage Jail.
But President Smith achieved greatness in his own right, stemming from his unflagging faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his consistent desire to serve Him. “All my life I have studied and pondered the principles of the gospel and sought to live the laws of the Lord,” he said at general conference in October 1971, near the end of his life. “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.”
He lived a life true to statements in the patriarchal blessing he received at age 19. It read: “You have never known the time when you did not believe and feel within your very bones that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that his mission was divine.”
He was promised: “It shall be thy duty to sit in counsel with thy brethren and to preside among the people. It shall be thy duty also to travel much at home and abroad, by land and water, laboring in the ministry. … Thou shalt confound the wisdom of the wicked and set at naught the counsels of the unjust.”
He was further promised, “You will be gifted to interpret the scriptures above your associates.” This was fulfilled as he gained a reputation in his lifetime as an authority on the scriptures, doctrine and history of the Church, expounded in such works as Essentials in Church History, Doctrines of Salvation, Church History and Modern Revelation and Answers to Gospel Questions, the latter an outgrowth of a feature he authored for many years in the Improvement Era, forerunner to today’s Ensign magazine.
And for nearly half a century, he served as Church Historian and Recorder, a position he occupied from 1921 until 1970, the year he was sustained as Church president.
Always busy with service in the kingdom of God, he also was president of the Salt Lake Temple, president of the Utah Genealogical and Historical Society, chairman of the executive committee of the Church Board of Education and chairman of the Church Publications Committee.
During his early years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, while his father was Church president, Joseph Fielding Smith assisted him as an unofficial secretary. As such, he was in the remarkable position of recording President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead, received about a month before the ailing prophet’s death and now canonized as Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
President Joseph Fielding Smith was widely known for his uncompromising fidelity to the laws of God and the principles of the gospel. Repentance was a frequent theme in his sermons.
As a result some people were inclined to view him as austere. But a biography published soon after his death at age 95 on July 2, 1972, co-written by a son, noted, “President Smith never compromised with sin, but was quick to forgive and extend a hand of fellowship to a repentant sinner. In truth, no man had greater concern and love for each Church member” (Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. and John J. Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith, pp. vi-vii).
His humanity and compassion are illustrated in everyday incidents, such as the occasion at general conference when he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and noticed the plight of a 12-year-old boy who had shown up early to get a seat near the front of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The boy had been directed by an usher to give up his seat for a U.S. senator who had arrived late.
All the seats were taken, and the embarrassed boy stood in the aisle in tears. President Smith motioned the boy to come up to him. Hearing what had happened, he said, “That usher had no right to do that to you. But here, you sit by me.” Through the meeting, he shared his seat among the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with the boy.”
On another occasion, when he had been interviewing new missionaries, he became aware of a young man who had been assigned to a mission in eastern Canada but had no coat. He took him to the nearby ZCMI department store and bought him the warmest coat available.
President Smith outlived three wives, each of whom he dearly loved: He married Louie Shurtliff on April 26, 1898; she died March 30, 1908. He married Ethel Georgina Reynolds on Nov. 2, 1908; she died Aug. 26, 1937. He married Jessie Evans on April 12, 1938; she died Aug. 3, 1971.
He was a consummate family man, with 11 children resulting from his first two marriages. The Smith household grew to an even dozen children after a newspaper boy, Stanley Dixon, tragically orphaned, was sought out by President Smith and invited to come and live in their home.
It was during his third marriage, to Jessie, that he filled a special assignment traveling with her to tour missions in Europe. During that journey, he organized the evacuation of all American missionaries from Europe after the outbreak of World War II.
His son Lewis, on a mission in England, was among the last missionaries to return home. Later, Lewis was called into military service. On Jan. 2, 1945, Elder Smith was notified by telegram that Lewis had been killed while in the service of his country.
“As severe as the blow is, we have the peace and happiness of knowing that he was clean and free from the vices so prevalent in the world and found in the army,” Elder Smith wrote in his journal. “He was true to his faith and is worthy of a glorious resurrection, when we shall be reunited again.”
President Smith became acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1950; six months later he became president of the Quorum. In 1966, he was called to be a counselor in the First Presidency under President David O. McKay. President McKay died Jan. 18, 1970. Joseph Fielding Smith was set apart as Church president seven days later, on Jan 23, 1970.
Despite his advanced age, 93, “President Smith approached his calling with childlike humility and youthful energy,” the new manual notes. “In the two years and five months he served as the Church’s prophet, seer, and revelator, Latter-day Saints across the world were inspired by his messages.
“He declared that ‘we are the spirit children of God our Heavenly Father,’ and that ‘we must believe in Christ and pattern our lives after Him.’ He testified that Joseph Smith ‘beheld and stood in the actual presence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ’ and became the ‘revealer of the knowledge of Christ and of salvation to the world for this day and generation.’
“He encouraged the Saints to ‘forsake many of the ways of the world’ but to love all people in the world – ‘to see the good in people even though we are trying to help them overcome one or two bad habits.’”
As Church president, he conducted the first area general conference of the Church, held in Manchester, England, attended by several thousand people. It would be followed by other area conferences, eventually to be superseded by smaller, regional conferences.
President Smith’s term as Church president was marked by continued growth in the Church – the creation of 81 stakes, including the first in Asia and Africa – and the dedication of two temples in Utah at Ogden and Provo, the first in Utah since 1893.
Selected quotations in the new manual drawn from President Smith’s sermons cover topics such as God the Father, Jesus Christ, the plan of salvation, fundamental gospel principles, the sacrament, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Book of Mormon, priesthood, eternal marriage and proclaiming the gospel to the world.
Note: Information for this article was drawn primarily from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. and John J. Stewart, Life of Joseph Fielding Smith