Joseph F. Smith
Joseph Fielding Smith (Sr) was born November 13, 1838, in Far West, Missouri, to Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith. At the time of his birth, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) was experiencing a great deal of persecution.
While Mary was pregnant with Joseph, his father and uncle (the Prophet Joseph Smith) were forced from their homes at bayonet point. The cruel captors told Mary that she would never see her husband again. The continual persecution, which culminated in the capture of her husband, added to the difficulty of her pregnancy. Mary was confined to bed due to emotional and physical strain. Baby Joseph would be born two weeks later. Mercy Thompson, Mary’s sister, moved in to care for Mary, the baby, and Hyrum’s five other children.
Persecution would continue and Joseph’s young life would be anything but normal. Members of the militia would continue to force their way into members’ homes, molesting, pillaging, and abusing the Saints. One night, the mobbers forced all but the baby Joseph into one area of the house and began pillaging. The mobbers tore the house apart and helped themselves to whatever they chose. In one room, the pillagers picked up a bed and threw it on top of another bed; in their disregard for life, they had buried the baby. Having taken what they wanted, they left. It took a few moments for Joseph’s family to recover from the situation that had just occurred. Then, suddenly, they remembered baby Joseph. They pulled the bedding away and found Joseph. Due to the suffocating weight of the bedding, the baby was blue from lack of oxygen. However, Joseph’s life was spared.
Persecution of the Mormons would only worsen. In 1844, Hyrum Smith and the Prophet Joseph Smith said what would prove to be their final goodbyes to their families. As the little six year old watched his father high upon the horse, Hyrum scooped little Joseph up into his arms and held him close, kissed him, and then lowered him back down into the street. It would be the last time little Joseph would see his father.
Joseph would always remember the love and loyalty his father showed to his uncle, the Prophet Joseph. On one occasion, the Prophet said, “…Brother Hyrum what a faithful heart you have got! O may the Eternal Jehovah crown eternal blessings upon your heart, as a reward for the care you have had for my soul! O how many sorrows we have shared together; and again we find ourselves shackled with unrelenting hand of oppression. Hyrum, thy name shall be written in the book of the law of the Lord, for those who come after thee to look upon, that they may pattern after thy works.”1
Joseph never forgot the lessons his father taught him – love and loyalty for God, family, and righteousness. He would honor the name “Joseph” throughout his life and pattern his own life and works after his father.
Joseph F., as he was called throughout his life, was unusually mature for his age. His mother and siblings would remain in Nauvoo until the summer of 1846, when, the lives of herself and her family threatened, she would quickly load her children in a flat boat with their few possessions and cross the Mississippi to nearby Montrose. There they would watch their beloved Nauvoo be bombarded and destroyed. As they continued on, Joseph, who was not yet eight years of age, was required to drive one of the ox teams most of the way to Winter Quarters. There the family would remain until the spring of 1848, when they would gather provisions and ox teams for the journey across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley.
For the next four years, Joseph would witness his mother’s faith and trust in the Lord as she overcame obstacles that stood in her way. While traveling to the Salt Lake Valley, they would lose one of their best oxen and three would become sick. Each time, Mary would plead with the Lord to help them, and He did. The lost ox was found and the three were restored to health. Joseph’s mother not only taught her son how to rely on the Lord, she showed him. She also taught him how to work hard, to be dependable, but most importantly how to love and serve the Lord. Mary Fielding Smith would pass away when Joseph was only fourteen years of age.
Soon after Joseph turned fifteen, he was ordained an elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was called to serve a three-year mission to Hawaii. He prayed fervently for the Lord to bless him that he might be able to speak the language. When he arrived in the islands, he became very ill and was not able to begin his ministry among the people. Unconcerned, he used this time to study the Hawaiian language. In a blessing from Elder Parley P. Pratt, Joseph was promised that he would master the language by faith and study. Within one hundred days, he was speaking the Hawaiian language fluently.
During his mission to the Hawaiian Islands, Joseph was plagued with numerous obstacles – fatigue, severe illness, and material loss by flood and fire. But he also had numerous opportunities in which to preach, heal the sick, and to cast out devils. In his moments of discouragement, Joseph would remember a dream that he had of his father, mother, the Prophet Joseph and others. He later recorded: “…I was very much oppressed…I was almost naked and entirely friendless, except the friendship of a poor, benighted, degraded people. 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 white man in the face.
While in that condition I dreamed that I was on a journey, and I was impressed that I ought to hurry – hurry with all my might, for fear I might be too late…Finally I came to a wonderful mansion…I knew that was my destination. As I passed towards it, as fast as I could, I saw a notice, ‘Bath’. I turned aside quickly and went into the bath and washed myself clean… Then I rushed to what appeared to be a great opening, or door. I knocked and the door opened, and the man who stood there was the Prophet Joseph Smith. He looked at me a little reprovingly, and the first words he said: ‘Joseph, you are late.’ Yet I took confidence and said: “Yes, but I am clean – I am clean!” He clasped my hand and drew me in, then closed the door…When I entered I saw my father, and Brigham [Young], and Willard [Richards], and other men that I had known, standing in a row…My mother was there… and I could name over as many as I remember of their names who sat there, who seemed to be among the chosen, among the exalted…
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, if there is anything good in me. That has helped me out in every trial and through every difficulty.”2
Joseph would serve a total of three missions, two to the Hawaiian Islands and one to Great Britain. Joseph would never stray from his testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he would take every opportunity in which to bear it. In a letter to his cousin George A. Smith, he declared, “I know that the work in which I am engaged is the work of the living and true God, and I am ready to bear my testimony of the same, at any time, or at any place, or in whatsoever circumstances I may be placed…I am ready to go through thick and thin for this cause in which I am engaged; and truly hope and pray that I may prove faithful to the end…I had rather die on this mission, than to disgrace myself or my calling.”
His testimony would be evident on his trip home from Hawaii, when he and his companions would be approached by a group of rebels. The leader swore that he would kill anyone who was a Mormon. Pointing his gun at Joseph, he asked, “Are you a Mormon?” Expecting the gun to discharge, Joseph boldly answered, “Yes, siree, dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through!” The gun was disarmed and the rebel shook Joseph’s hand and praised him for his courage. Because of his powerful and fearless speeches, Joseph F. would be known as the ‘Fighting Apostle.’ His defense of the kingdom of God was unwavering. Elder Widtsoe, who would later become an Apostle, stated, “The Fighting Apostle they called him, as he hurled back the untruths about ‘Mormonism’, and his relentless watchfulness became a deterrent power among those who planned evil for a good and peaceful people…”
Joseph came home in the midst of the Utah War. After more than a year of service in defending the Saints, young Joseph F. was given a job in the Church Historian’s office. At the age of twenty-seven, he was ordained an apostle and counselor in the First Presidency, by then Mormon Prophet President Brigham Young. He would be selected as a counselor to the succeeding prophets of John Taylor and Lorenzo Snow. After the death of President Snow in 1901, Joseph F. Smith would become the fifth Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At the age of twenty-one, Joseph would marry Levira A. Smith. Called to practice plural marriage, Joseph F. would accept five wives over the coming years. He would teach the importance of home and family, and commented numerous times that, “There is no substitute for the home. Its foundation is as ancient as the world, and its mission has been ordained of God from the earliest times…The home then is more than a habitation, it is an institution which stands for stability and love in individuals as well as in nations…
In 1915, the Lord inspired President Smith on the need to strengthen the homes of the members, so that they could successfully combat the evil forces that would try to pull families apart. In an official statement issued by the First Presidency, the Saints were urged to begin a program that would be the basis of a strong and happy home. In part, “We advise and urge the inauguration of a ‘Home Evening’ throughout the Church, at which time fathers and mothers may gather their [family] about them in the home and teach them the word of the Lord…The Home Evening should be devoted to prayer, singing hymns…scripture reading…and specific instruction on the principles of the Gospel, and on the ethical problems of life…if the Saints obey this counsel, we promise that great blessings will result. Love at home and obedience to parents will increase. Faith will be developed in the hearts of the youth…and they will gain power to combat the evil influences and temptations which beset them.”3
Joseph F. continued to make the family of first importance in his own life and admonished the Saints to do as well. He set the proper example to his children by putting each one of them first, sharing his testimony with them and teaching them the gospel principles.
One of the greatest trials in Joseph’s life was that of being in exile from his family for years due to the so-called ‘Mormon Crusade’, in which the Church was mistreated for plural marriage. Under the direction of President Taylor, Joseph F. would spend his time in Hawaii fulfilling the duties of the church. Powerless to change the situation, he would wait word from home. He would receive word of the continued harassment of the Saints, his families forced abandonment of their home, and the death of a child. Determined he wrote, “Trials are necessary to the perfection of mankind…”4 The day of amnesty would arrive, and he was able to return home to his loved ones.
As President of the Mormon Church, President Smith, would continue to emphasize the importance of tithing, he defended the Church before Congress in 1904, and withstood personal attacks. As he neared the end of his life, he received a revelation in regards to the Redemption of the Dead, which is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138.
President Smith would pass away at the age of eighty in 1918. He served as Prophet of the Mormon Church for seventeen years.
1 “History of the Church”, 5:107-108
2 “Gospel Doctrine”, 1939, p.541-43
3 “Improvement Era”, Home Evening, June 1915, p.733-34
4 “Life of Joseph F. Smith”, Smith, p.280