Joseph F. Smith was born November 13, 1838, in Far West, Missouri. His parents were Hyrum Smith, brother to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, and Mary Fielding. Just a few days before his birth, his father, Hyrum Smith, had been turned over to the Missouri militia and was placed in the oddly-named Liberty Jail. Hyrum had been taken from his home at bayonet point and mobs circled the house as Mary lay inside, very ill from the strain of delivering a child under such traumatic circumstances. A mobster assured her that her husband would die and a preacher stood inside the house preaching a message of hatred against the Mormons. The mob forced everyone into a single room, but kept the baby out. During their destruction of the home, they buried little Joseph under a heavy pile of bedding. His survival was a miracle, although he was blue by the time the family was released and found him.
Father was murdered
Joseph’s earliest years were challenged by the deep persecutions the Mormons faced due to their faith and their rejection of slavery. When he was five, his father was murdered by mobs. When he was only nine, he drove an ox team from Missouri to Utah as the Mormons worked to escape persecution. While they stopped at Winter Quarters, he took work as a herd boy to help the little family survive.
He learned to read as they traveled across the plains by reading the Bible with his mother. His opportunities for education were limited as he had to work to help his mother earn enough to survive. In Utah, he worked as a herder, worked at threshing and other farm chores for men needing an extra hand, and cut and hauled wood. He was also responsible for the family’s flock, never losing a single animal through his own misdeeds.
Joseph F. Smith was orphaned
Joseph’s mother died when he was only fourteen years old. Just after his fifteenth birthday, he was called to serve a mission in Hawaii for three years. (Today, missionaries do not serve until they are at least eighteen years old.) He was promised in a spiritual blessing that he would learn the language well.
He first stopped in California, where he worked cutting shingles to earn enough money for his passage. The journey was difficult and soon after arriving he became very ill. The people there took care of him and while he recovered, he studied the Hawaiian language and was fluent within just one hundred days. Many years later, he would return to Hawaii and be reunited with the woman, then ninety years old and blind, who took care of him during this illness, referring to her as his Hawaiian mama.
Joseph F. Smith Missionary
During the journey home from Hawaii, he and his traveling companions encountered men who held them at gunpoint, threatening to kill anyone who was Mormon. One asked Joseph if he was a Mormon. He answered, ““Yes, siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.” The man with the gun, who was the group’s leader, was so surprised by the answer Joseph gave, particularly when a gun was pointed at him, that he shook Joseph’s hand and the group left without harming anyone. Three years later, Joseph was again faced with the opportunity to save his life by denying his faith. The group he was with had tried to be discreet about their faith as they approached a mob-filled Nauvoo, Illinois, but a Catholic priest asked him specifically if he was Mormon. He was tempted for a moment to say he was not, in hopes of remaining safe, but decided not to deny his faith. He said that he was and the priest simply accepted his answer.
Joseph returned home early in 1858, having been released, as were all foreign missionaries in 1857, to help defend Utah from threats of the American military, which was heading for Utah. He joined the militia and was on guard when they received President Buchanan’s pardon and proclamation of peace.
Joseph served several other missions, even after he was married. Today missionaries only serve full-time missions away from home after marriage if they serve with their spouses, but in the earlier days of the church, Mormon men often traveled alone on missions. He went to Great Britain and to Hawaii and also helped to settle a problem in which a man had decided, of his own accord, to be the leader of the Church in Hawaii. Since they could not convince him he did not have the authority to make that decision, the man was excommunicated.
Joseph F. Smith Apostle
In 1866, Joseph was serving as a secretary to the apostles when Brigham Young received an impression that Joseph F. Smith should be called to be one of his counselors. However, it was a year after he was set apart to the calling that he actually became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and then a counselor in 1867, when Brigham Young needed a third counselor. (The usual number is two, but more can be called if needed.)
Brigham Young died the following year. Joseph was, at that time, serving a mission in Great Britain with Parley P. Pratt. Both men were instructed to return home when Young died. In October 1880, he became second counselor to Prophet John Taylor.
He practiced polygamy and had five wives over the years.
When Wilford Woodruff became prophet at age 82, Joseph F. Smith was chosen to be his second counselor, and when Wilford Woodruff died and was replaced by Lorenzo Snow, Joseph again served as second counselor.
Joseph F. Smith Prophet
Joseph F. Smith became the senior apostle, a role determined by date of calling to the role of apostle, and thus automatically became the next prophet. He became president and prophet of the Church at age 63 in 1901. Several previous leaders, beginning some 37 years before, had prophesied he would one day hold that role.
One challenge Joseph faced as prophet was a request for an endorsement by the church of Thomas Kearns for Senate. President Smith explained that the church did not endorse candidates, which sent Kearns on a campaign against the Mormons, even creating the American party to stir up persecution. The campaign against them was so fierce, however, that even some party members found it offensive. President Smith merely advised church members to forgive Kearns.
In 1906, Joseph became the first modern prophet to travel to Europe in that capacity. The following year, he gave an address in support of polygamy and also emphasized the Church’s official support of separation of church and state. He was forced to stay away from his family during persecution based on opposition to Mormon polygamy, often spending that time doing missionary work.
In 1915, Joseph introduced a program known as Family Home Evening, in which Mormon families would gather just as a family one day a week to teach the gospel to each other and to strengthen their family bonds. The program is still in practice today and is a decisive factor in the success of Mormon families.
Joseph was often known as the Fighting Apostle, not for physical fighting, but for relentlessly defending Mormonism against the persecutions that led to his father’s murder, his family’s constant need to uproot and start over, and the suffering of his own wives and children. Although he fought hard to defend the church, he never wrote a single letter defending himself against persecution.
In 1918, Joseph F. Smith received a revelation that clarified and enhanced Mormon understanding on the afterlife. It was approved as official doctrine by the apostles, but not published until after his death in 1918.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.