The multitudinous family of Smith

October 21, 2007 | 29 comments
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Josiah Quincy famously wrote that, “Of the multitudinous family of Smith, from Adam down (Adam of the “Wealth of Nations,” I mean), none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent today, and the end is not yet.” Was he right? And does this still hold true today? Where does Joseph rank, within the multitudinous family of Smith, in present-day influence?

The obvious competitor for the crown of Most Influential Smith is already mentioned in the quote: Adam Smith. The Scottish-born Adam Smith is known as the Father of Economics, singlehandedly creating an important disclipline that continues to affect the way that many politicians, scholars, and business people interact with the world. Smith’s ideas affect many more people indirectly as economic policies, put into place by elites, affect the everyday lives of billions of people worldwide. Smith’s role in launching the discipline of economics was vital. He wasn’t a bad economist, either; while a good deal of modern economics depends on later thinkers (such as Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman), some of Smith’s particular insights (the invisible hand) have held up quite well over time. Does this make Adam Smith more influential than Joseph Smith? Probably.

Who else is there? One other name of interest is Al Smith, the powerful politician who won the Democratic nominee for U.S. President in 1928. As the first Roman Catholic to win a major party nomination, Al Smith played an important role in shaping prewar U.S. politics and societal attitudes about religion. This has had long-lasting effects on U.S. politics. Overall, though, it’s very hard to say that he was more influential than Joseph.

After all, consider the range of Joseph Smith’s influence. He founded a religion, yes. Beyond that, his actions had important indirect effects on the settlement of the western United States and on the development of major principles of Constititutional law and U.S. politics. Between Reynolds and Smoot, Joseph Smith may be as important as Al Smith in domestic politics alone; add in the religious and demographic influences, and there’s no question that Joseph is more important.

Beyond Adam and Al, the cupboard is relatively bare, isn’t it? There are a number of modestly important politicians, artists, athletes, and others with the surname Smith, but none of particular import. (Am I missing any?) Adam aside, Joseph is probably the most influential Smith.

It seems that others agree. The Atlantic recently compiled a list of the 100 most influential Americans. Joseph is the only Smith to make the list.

(Some of Quincy’s other predictions have not held up so well. Quincy suggested that it might be possible that Joseph Smith would be considered the most influential 19th-century American. That seems unlikely today. Just to cite one outsider perspective, The Atlantic’s list contains a score of 19th-century figures above Joseph Smith: Lincoln, Edison, Twain, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Carnegie, Walt Whitman, Alexander Graham Bell, Eli Whitney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, and on and on.)

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29 Responses to The multitudinous family of Smith

  1. Julie M. Smith on October 21, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Hem-hem.

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve on October 21, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    *lol* at Julie M.

    I think it depends on your perspective. From a purely worldly standpoint, Adam Smith may be the most influential Smith — right now. Though I will say that while he was indeed a genius, mostly what he did was figure out the rules for how things worked. Like Newton and Kepler, he didn’t create the laws that affect our lives, he just articulated them.

    However, the church is 12 million strong and growing. Perhaps as history goes on and Joseph Smith’s influence spreads, he will be proved the most influential after all.

    Then of course there’s the perspective that, as the man who brought about the Restoration, and through whom things like baptism for the dead and the sealing ordinances were returned to Earth — and thus as a man whose work spans this life and the one to come — Joseph takes the cake hands down.

  3. Bob on October 21, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    19th Century…does Smith and Wesson count? And let not forget Anne Nicole.

  4. BiV on October 21, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    But Will Smith is one of the 2007 top 49 men!

  5. Y Stephenson on October 21, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    How about Maggie Smith. But seriously has it really been long enough to evaluate Joseph Smiths influence in a meaningful way. It has barely been 200 years since he was born. Historians usually take a much longer view. Over time his influence will grow,

  6. Adam S. on October 21, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    (yes, the S is for Smith) I’m still reeling from the realization that there aren’t more choices. I alway just assumed that my multitudinous family ruled the English-speaking world. Maybe it’s our artisan roots that have kept us from assuming more influential roles.

    One name that did some to mind is Captain John Smith of Jamestown.

  7. David on October 21, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    Although Johnny Marr was my favorite, I\’d have to say that Morrissey was the most influential Smith.

  8. Sean on October 21, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    I agree with Proud Daughter of Eve. At this point, in a world becoming steadily wealthier from Adam Smith\’s ideas, Adam Smith wins. But in the long run (post-second coming of Jesus Christ), there is really no question that Joseph Smith will have had the more powerful influence on the future course of the earth.

  9. CBiden on October 22, 2007 at 12:41 am

    What percentage of 6,626,168,364 is 12 million?

  10. Ray on October 22, 2007 at 1:01 am

    My vote goes to Smith and Wesson. I’m not convinced someone else wouldn’t have been the Adam Smith of economics if Adam Smith hadn’t been the Adam Smith of economics. I think many others easily could have and eventually would have understood what he understood. I am convinced that few, if any, others could have been what Joseph Smith was.

    #8, if Joseph was right, what percentage of 6,626,168,364 is 6,626,168,364 – or whatever the much higher number is for all ever born? Each person who chose JS over AS did so explicitly with the caveat that it only makes sense if he was what he claimed to be and did what he claimed to do.

  11. CBiden on October 22, 2007 at 2:13 am

    “Each person who chose JS over AS did so explicitly with the caveat that it only makes sense if he was what he claimed to be and did what he claimed to do.”

    What does that mean? Are you saying that the fact that 12 million people (and of course the actual number of active members is far less) choose to believe that JS was a prophet makes it so?

  12. Ardis Parshall on October 22, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Each person who chose JS over AS did so explicitly with the caveat that it only makes sense if he was what he claimed to be and did what he claimed to do.

    Not necessarily. Even had he been a fraud (pious or otherwise), Joseph Smith’s influence in sparking the greatest immigration movement into the US traceable to one man, and Mormonism’s involvement in the westward movement, and all that that has meant to American history, with whatever consequences that has had on the world stage, along with all the other ever-widening circles of JS’s influence, could still have caused a great many people to chose JS over any other S.

  13. John Mansfield on October 22, 2007 at 10:53 am

    Honorable mention to Jedidiah Smith. Much higher in my book than Al Smith.

  14. Ray on October 22, 2007 at 11:49 am

    #11 – Not at all. Frankly, there is no way to read that into what I actually wrote. None, whatsoever.

    IF, and only IF, he actually was a prophet, and IF, and only IF, what he taught about extending the opportunity for exaltation to every man, woman and child who has lived throughout the history of the world is accurate – and IF, and only IF, that opportunity is denied by nearly all of the other Christian religions in the world – then, and only then, Joseph Smith was FAR more important then Adam Smith. IF NOT, and only IF NOT, then it is a question worthy of debate.

    Is that clear enough?

  15. Bob on October 22, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    #12: “Joseph Smith’s influence in sparking the greatest immigration movement into the US traceable to one man…” I don’t get that at all. Are you forgetting Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, Brigham Young, the railroad, Manifest Destiny, the Santa Fe Trial, etc.?

  16. Ardis Parshall on October 22, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    15: Bob, I’m using “immigration” to mean bringing non-Americans to America . Most of the people/tools/events you list had little or nothing to do with that, and Brigham Young grows out of Joseph Smith. Is there a single person whose originality caused more people to move from Europe to North America than Joseph Smith?

  17. Bob on October 22, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    #16: ” Is there a single person whose originality caused more people to move from Europe to North America than Joseph Smith? Columbus?

  18. Ardis Parshall on October 22, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Bob, you’re confusing “opportunity” with “cause.” People came to North America because their religion or economy or politics drove them here, not because of the draw of Columbus — whoever said “Let’s move to North America because Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean”? And if Columbus were considered the direct cause of immigration, why not give credit to Columbus’s mother? Or Isabella? Or the guy who packed the salt beef for the journey?

    On the other hand, tens upon tens of thousands of people, from about 1840 up to last week, have immigrated to North America specifically because Joseph Smith said “gather here.” That’s a fundamentally different thing.

  19. Bob on October 22, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    #18: I am confused. When the word ‘cult’ comes up, the answer is: ” We don’t think JS was that special, he was only carry out his calling. None of the things that happened were because of him, he only acted as God directed. When he acted on his own, he failed. He was only a farm boy.”

  20. Jonovitch on October 22, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I am Emmitt Smith.

    (Jon)

  21. Ardis Parshall on October 22, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Bob, I don’t understand your confusion so I’m not sure I’m responding in the right direction.

    People came to North America in response to a call issued by Joseph Smith. That is objective fact. Whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet, whether or not he was acting as God directed, whether or not we are a cult, whether or not he acted on his own — are all irrelevant to the point under discussion.

    I am simply saying that Joseph Smith’s influence was the direct cause of the immigration of multitudes of people. No other single individual is directly responsible for more such immigration. Even people who do not believe in his prophetic calling can recognize his influence in this area, which is relevant to the original post.

    I’m running out of ways to repeat myself, so am bowing out of the conversation now.

  22. Adam Greenwood on October 22, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Good explanations, Ardis P.

  23. Bob on October 22, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    #21 & 22: I have no wish to fight. My picks are Castle Clinton, the Statue of Liberty, or the potato famine. Some did come to see a Prophet or a Zion, I don’t know how many came because of a call from Joseph Smith. ( To be clear, I did not call the Church a cult)

  24. California Condor on October 29, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    What I find remarkable is how rarely people named “Joseph Smith” come up. Smith is such a common surname and Joseph is such a common first name. Yet rarely have I encountered anyone named Joseph Smith in person or via the news.

  25. Ardis Parshall on October 29, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    Carlie Brucia, the little girl who was abducted and murdered in Florida a year or two ago, whose abduction was caught by the security camera at a car wash, was killed by someone named Joseph Smith. We have every reason to notice the name when we hear it, and we *don’t* seem to hear it very often apart from the Prophet, do we, CC?

  26. California Condor on October 29, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Ardis Parshall (25),

    Yes, the founder of Mormonism pretty much owns his name. My name is quite common… at one point there were about 7 guys at BYU who had at least the same proper name and surname that I did (with a variety of middle names). An ex-NFL player has my name, an ex-NBA player has my name, and a famous composer has my name as well.

  27. Bill on October 29, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    A painting by Joseph B. Smith hangs in the Museum of the City of New York:

    http://www.mcny.org/collections/painting/pttcat21.htm

    Another Joseph B. Smith was a navy hero:

    http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-s/jb-smith.htm

    You can also hear Joseph Smith playing the piano on NPR from time to time:

    http://www.brioso.com/artists/smith.htm

    And musicologists know F. Joseph Smith as the founding editor of the Journal of Musicological Research.

    But yes, all these Joseph Smiths are much less famous than the one born in 1805.

  28. Kaimi Wenger on October 29, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Also, Joe Smith is a professional basketball player. He was a first-overall draft choice of the Golden State Warriors a decade ago, and has been a good (but not great) basketball player for a decade now. He’s often been considered a disappointment, since first-overall drafted players are expected to do better. He may be most famous for being involved in a salary-cap scandal with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

  29. Rob on October 30, 2007 at 3:05 am

    If you look at just my life as an example, Joseph Smith has helped my relationship with my wife. Adam Smith keeps hurting it. Easy cost-benefit. Joseph wins

    http://jenirob.blogspot.com/2007/10/adam-smith-sleeps-on-couch-again.html.