Once every year or two, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints releases a new manual for in church meetings. These manuals—the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church—cover the teachings of one prophet, seer and revelator who has presided over the Church in the past. The manuals have not been chronological in their order of release. For example, the past three to be released have been Joseph Smith (1st president), George Albert Smith (8th president) and Lorenzo Snow (5th president). As a result, it has become somewhat of a guessing game as to who will be up next. For those who have walked into Distribution Centres in recent times, however, the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book for 2014 has been revealed: Joseph Fielding Smith. In addition to the new manual, the Church has put up a video gallery with short presentation on the prophets’ lives and teachings. Several of these videos will be linked to this post.
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church 2014: Joseph Fielding Smith
That being the case, who was Joseph Fielding Smith and why should we be excited to study his life and teachings next year? To be honest, I have struggled with this man for a number of years—his opinionated, but occasionally less-than-doctrinal statements; his arch-conservatism; and his stern attitude have caused me to have less-than-congenial feelings towards him in the past. In more recent times, however, I have been reconciled to his life, work, and words and have come to appreciate him for the good that he did. Joseph Fielding Smith served as a general authority for about 62 years—one of the longest periods of anyone in the Church—serving in several important positions while doing so, including Church Historian, a counselor in the Salt Lake Temple presidency unofficial secretary to the president of the Church, president of the Genealogical Society of Utah, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, and finally becoming president of the Church when he was 93 years old. Despite his advanced age, he actively served as president for two and one-half years, leading changes in Church structure and correlation that still affect us to this day. Despite a few statements that are problematic here and there, he was one of the great gospel scholars of our history, producing 25 books on gospel subjects, regularly publishing articles in periodicals in addition to his many, many sermons. He was indeed a man of God, one who was characterized by the words “true and faithful.”
Joseph Fielding Smith came from a strong heritage in the Church. His paternal grandfather was Hyrum Smith—the brother of Joseph Smith who also served as patriarch to the Church for a number of years. Joseph Fielding’s father was Joseph F. Smith, who served as an apostle and then as president of the Church during an important period of transition. Joseph Fielding’s mother—Juliana Lambson Smith—came from one of the early pioneer families in the Salt Lake Valley and was related to George A. and Bathsheba W. Smith’s niece (Bathsheba was general Relief Society President for a number of years and George A. Smith was her husband and an apostle and counselor to Brigham Young). Juliana had not been able to have any sons prior to Joseph and so, as Joseph Fielding’s son-in-law later explained, “she went before the Lord and, like Hannah of old, ‘vowed a vow.’ Her promise: that if the Lord would give her a son, ‘she would do all in her power to help him be a credit to the Lord and to his father.’ The Lord hearkened to her prayers, and she kept her promises to him” (Smith Teachings 1).
Joseph Fielding Smith’s parents in 1916.
Joseph Fielding Smith’s life was not an easy one by any means. Since his father practiced polygamy and was a leader in the Church, there were many mouths to feed and much work to do, particularly at times when Joseph F. went away on Church assignments or to hide from federal officials on polygamist hunts. Many responsibilities that would—under normal circumstances—be adult tasks were left to young Joseph Fielding. When he moved out and onwards in life, he would experience many trials, including that of being a widower three times over, none of which were experienced as polygamist marriages. He also would be expected to devote most of his time and talents to the Church in his adult life, resulting in a full-time mission to England shortly after his first marriage began and the many later assignments mentioned above.
A nesting doll of Joseph Fielding Smith.
What sort of a man did this life create? In the public eye he was known as a stern, straightforward and orthodox man, somewhat similar to how Elder Boyd K. Packer is often seen today. There is a story that is attached to both Joseph Fielding Smith and J. Golden Kimball that tells of the man speaking at a stake conference and telling the stake members that if they don’t repent of their neglect in paying tithing, only 10% of them would make it to the Celestial Kingdom. After he received some complaints from offended members, Elder Smith/Kimball returned to tell them that after careful consideration he could acknowledge that he was wrong to make the statement he did and apologized for it… because he realized that only 5% of those members would make it to the Celestial Kingdom. One person who was acquainted with him describe Joseph as being “a quite, retiring introvert, dignified and detached, who always seemed somewhat uncomfortable in a public setting and who never sought to call attention to himself” (Smith Teachings 22-23).
Yet, that was only one side of the man. His second wife described him as being “a kind, loving husband and father whose greatest ambition in life is to make his family happy, entirely forgetful of self in his efforts to do this…. The man I know is unselfish, uncomplaining, considerate, thoughtful, sympathetic, doing everything within his power to make life a supreme joy for his loved ones” (Smith Teachings 74). Elder Francis M. Gibbons—a secretary for the First Presidency—recalled that: “His decisions were always made in kindness and love and with the widest latitude of mercy that the circumstances could justify” (Smith Teachings 84).
Perhaps his sternness towards members was born of a combination of his introversion and his heart-felt conviction that calling repentance was the best way to express his love and concern for mankind. He once asked a congregation:
Who is your best friend, or who loves you the most?… The person who tells you all is well in Zion… or the person who warns you of the calamities and the difficulties that are promised unless the principles of the gospel are lived? I want you to know that I love the members of the Church and I do not want of them to point an accusing finger at me when we pass beyond the veil of mortal existence and say, “If you had only warned me I would not be in this predicament.” And so I raise the warning voice in hopes that my brothers and sisters may be prepared for a kingdom of glory (Smith Teachings 83-84).
President Smith worked hard to fulfill his duty, whether to call repentance, serve his family, or to fulfill his many callings in the Church. It was perhaps due to this that President Gordon B. Hinckley recalled that President Smith “used three great words that I can never forget.” Those three words were “true and faithful” and they apply to Joseph Fielding Smith as much as he tried to have others live up to those words (see Smith Teachings 1). During his early life, Joseph assisted his father in his assignments, even going to dedicate a meetinghouse in Brigham City in his stead. Joseph Fielding even joked that his first assignment came when he was a baby—when he was nine months old he accompanied his father and Brigham Young to St. George, Utah to attend the temple dedication (see Smith Teachings 117).
Significant among the callings that Joseph Fielding Smith served in as an adult include his call to be an Assistant Church Historian (1906-1921) and Church Historian (1921-1970); Apostle (1910-1972) and President of the Quorum of the Twelve (1951-1970); Counselor in the Salt Lake Temple Presidency (1919-1935), President of the Salt Lake Temple (1945-1949), and President of the Genealogical Society of Utah (1934-1961); as a counselor in the First Presidency (1965-1970) and finally as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1970-1972). Now, let us look at each of these assignment groups and Joseph’s feelings about and accomplishments in each of them.
1. Church Historian
The old Church Historian’s Office
Joseph Fielding Smith served longer as Church Historian than any other man in LDS history. Among his accomplishments is a volume called Essentials in Church History—one of the most widely-read single volume histories of the Church. Sunstone Magazine listed it among “Fifty Important Mormon Books” because at the time of its publication:
There was no one-volume Church history for use by members….. This book, which has gone through many editions, was used extensively for over fifty years in various Church settings….. One may dispute the book’s value as an accurate Church history text, but one cannot discount the influence it had on Mormon historiography and on several generations of Mormons (Bench 55).
Of particular interest to Joseph Fielding was defending the name and reputation of his grandfather and great-uncle Hyrum Smith and Joseph Smith, Jr. He consistently testified of the Prophet’s life and mission, stating that “I have always been very grateful for the testimony coming to me through the Spirit of the Lord that Joseph Smith, the Prophet of God, was called to stand at the head of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times” (Smith Teachings 106). Among the works he produced involving his great-uncle was the Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which served for years in the Church as the standard resource for the Prophet’s words.
As an apostle, Joseph Fielding felt it was his responsibility to be a special witness of Jesus Christ. He once said: “I try to love Him, our Redeemer, above all else. It is my duty to. I travel up and down in this country as one of His special witnesses” (Smith Teachings 49). This need to testify of the Savior extended to his family as well. One son recalled.
[Once] as I sat alone with my father in his study, I observed that he had been in deep meditation. I hesitated to break the silence, but finally he spoke. “Oh my son, I wish you could have been with me last Thursday as I met with my Brethren in the temple. Oh, if you could have heard them testify of their love for their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!” And then he lowered his head and tears streamed from his face and dropped to his shirt. Then, after many seconds, without as much as raising his head, but moving his head back and forth, he said, “Oh, how I love my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!” (Smith Teachings 50).
Joseph Fielding Smith’s other great accomplishment as an apostle was sharing his knowledge of Gospel doctrine. His love for Church doctrine began at a young age. His father handed him a copy of the Book of Mormon when he was eight years old and told him to read it. Joseph “received this Nephite record with thanksgiving and applied [himself] to the task which has been assigned” (Smith Teachings 139). He pushed himself to finish chores quickly or left baseball games early to study the Book of Mormon along with the other scriptures and publications of the Church, secluding himself “in the hayloft or in the shade of a tree to get back to his reading” (Smith Teachings 4). When he worked at ZCMI he carried a pocket-sized edition of the New Testament with him to read on lunch breaks and as he walked to and from his job. As an apostle, President Heber J. Grant was known to have said that Joseph was the “best posted man on the scriptures” among all the General Authorities (Smith Teachings 141).
A display of Joseph Fielding Smith’s writing desk and equipment in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.
President Smith’s love for the gospel and deep understanding of the Church’s doctrine led to the publication of dozens of books and articles and over 125 sermons in general conference, in addition to scores of other addresses in stake conferences and other events on the beliefs and teachings of Mormonism. He was considered a great authority on the matter and was often approached by letter, phone, and in person with questions and concerns. To help answer these questions he began a feature series in the Improvement Era (the Church’s main adult publication at the time) that has since been published in the five-volume Answers to Gospel Questions. Although not every position he held has been accepted as Church doctrine—statements about people of African descent and the priesthood, evolution, and other matters stand among the most glaring examples—he spoke with his understanding of the doctrine as taught by other general authorities of the past and provided a strong, conservative voice in understanding LDS doctrine.
3. Temple Presidency and President of the Genealogical Society of Utah
President Smith had a deep love and appreciation of genealogical work and work for the dead. At the cornerstone ceremony of the Ogden Temple he stated, “temple building and temple ordinances are at the very heart of our religion…. There is no more glorious work than the perfecting of family units through the ordinances of the house of the Lord” (Smith Address).
The old Ogden Temple
As a youth, Joseph Fielding watched the work on the Salt Lake City Temple progress—a process that took 40 years all told (construction began 23 years before he was born). He once said, “I used to wonder whether I would ever live long enough to see the temple completed” (Smith Teachings 5). When he was 17 years old he attended the dedication ceremony and would later serve in various positions in the temple presidency there. As President of the Church he dedicated the Ogden, Utah Temple and presided at the dedication of the Provo, Utah Temple—the first two temples to be dedicated in Utah since statehood had been achieved. As President of the Genealogical Society of Utah—an organization founded in the 1890s to provide support for temple work in the Church—President Smith was a “principle force behind the society” and helped its growth and efficiency by studying the libraries and programs of the eastern United States and introducing improved methods of filing and record keeping to the Utah society during a time of great expansion in genealogical and temple work (see Alexander 313-315; Allen and Leonard 483).
In connection with his belief in eternal families and the “perfecting of family units” President Smith also placed great emphasis on strengthening the family. His teachings reflect a desire to strengthen eternal marriage and to bring up children in light and truth. One of the methods he focused on was family home evening, stating that “Fathers and mothers who faithfully hold family home evenings and who build family unity in every way possible, fulfill with honor the greatest of all responsibilities–that of parenthood (Smith Teachings 211).
4. President of the Church
Joseph Fielding Smith addressing a congregation.
After the death of David O. McKay in January 1970, Joseph Fielding Smith became president of the Church. Although he was ninety-three years old when he rose to the helm of the Church, President Smith “proved that he was still vigorous both mentally and physically…. He kept up at a remarkable pace, including an active speaking schedule, and many who had been critical of a system that allowed aged men to govern had ample reason to change their minds” (Allen and Leonard 594).
His ministry was only two and one-half years—and much of what President Smith did was an outgrowth of David O. McKay’s administration—yet, there were several important changes in the Church that took place during that time: the education program, the Historical Department, and the publications program were all reorganized; the Social Services Corporation was organized and a training program for bishops was initiated; and the teacher development program of the Church was expanded. In addition, the Church was becoming an increasingly international organization and President Smith helped to deal with this growth, organizing fourteen new missions and several new stakes as well—including the first stakes in Asia (Tokyo, Japan) and Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa). It was also under Joseph Fielding’s administration that the first area conference was held in Manchester England, strengthening the Church abroad (see Allen and Leonard 594-596). President Joseph Fielding Smith’s ministry was short, but oversaw an important period of transition and correlation.
Joseph Fielding Smith was a man who was faithful and true to His Lord during his life. He was known in public as a stern, orthodox man with a great understanding of the scriptures and LDS Church doctrine who published scores of books and articles to defend and teach about his faith and beliefs. In other settings, he was known as a loving, merciful man who cared very much for his family and for mankind. Summarizing President Smith’s life and labors, Bruce R. McConkie wrote that he was characterized by three things:
- His love of the Lord and absolute, unswerving fidelity with which he sought to signify that love by keeping his commandments and doing ever those things which would please the Lord.
- His loyalty to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the everlasting truths restored through him; to his grandfather, the Patriarch Hyrum Smith,… [who] met a martyr’s death; and to his father, President Joseph F. Smith, whose name is enshrined forever in the celestial city as one who endured valiantly in the cause of him whose blood was shed that we might live.
- His own gospel scholarship and spiritual insight; his own unwearying diligence as a preacher of righteousness; and his own course of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the widow and the fatherless, and manifesting pure religion by precept as well as by example (Smith Teachings 26-27).
I have come to appreciate and understand this servant of the Lord as I have studied his life and teachings in recent times. Perhaps the Salt Lake Tribune said it best when it wrote this eulogy:
Joseph Fielding Smith, a man stern in devotion to his creed, yet tender in regard for essential needs of people everywhere, gave wise counsel to his associates, loving care to his family and exalted leadership to his church responsibilities. He will be missed, but remembered with special esteem (Smith Teachings 32).
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition, 3rd ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012.
Allen, James B. & Glen M. Leonard. The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1992.
Bench, Curt. “Reviews: Fifty Important Mormon Books.” Sunstone Magazine October 1990, 54-58.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. “Address, September 7, 1870, Cornerstone Laying of Ogden Temple.” 7 September 1870. TS. LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013.
 The Church’s official stance on evolution is that “Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the soul of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church….
“Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: ‘Adam is the primal parent of our race’” [First Presidency Minutes, April 7, 1931].