Joseph F. Smith “(remember the F)” is one of the most important and influential presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even though he isn’t frequently discussed in church settings. It was during his administration that the Church really started to take on its current form – rejection of polygamy, modern monetary auditing systems, the first attempts at correlation, temples outside of the United States, our understanding of priesthood as an entity unto itself, the vision that is now D&C section 138 was received, and the purchasing and development of historical sites all were developments overseen by Joseph F. Smith. As a person, Joseph was also extremely complex, making him a fascinating subject to study, as Steven Taysom’s recently-released biography Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith demonstrates. In a recent interview with the Latter-day Saint history blog, Steven Taysom discussed a bit about the life of Joseph F. Smith. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
(As a warning, the interview, including some portions quoted below, does discuss domestic abuse that may be disturbing to read about.)
Now, as I indicated up front, Joseph is a crucial figure in the development of the modern Church. Taysom explained it this way:
Joseph F. Smith’s life life tracked the maturation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution, the maturation of industrial capitalism and two-party politics in the United States, and he found himself challenged, at the end of his life with actually (as opposed to earlier faux attempts) to end plural marriage among Latter-day Saint leaders and rank and file members.
To his point about polygamy being ended properly during his tenure, post-Manifesto plural marriage was continued in a limited capacity until the events of the Reed Smoot hearings in 1903 lead to the Second Manifesto that gave some teeth to ending the principle in 1904. And per the two-party system, Joseph F. Smith was deeply involved in the transition to national political parties in Utah (and was largely responsible for swinging many Latter-day Saints to the Republican Party).
He is remembered mainly for a few key reasons:
My answer is necessarily anecdotal. So, my impression is that Joseph F. Smith is best known among members of the Church of Jesus Christ first for being the son of Hyrum Smith, second for the stories of him crossing the plains as a child, and third probably for his missionary experiences in Hawaii.
I would add, as indicated up front, that he is also remembered for the “F.” in his name, thanks to the “Latter-day Prophets” song in the children’s songbook. But, the most common stories that I’ve heard told about him is the one about his dream in Hawai’i where he choose to be clean rather than punctual and his willingness to be shot rather than denouncing being a “true blue, through and through” Mormon (is that a good thing or a victory for Satan these days?), in addition to being the prophet who received D&C 138, the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead.
Now, Joseph was also known for being a very passionate man. As Taysom noted:
I am fascinated by the depth and ferocity of his emotional life. Whether those emotions were productive or destructive, they manifested almost unchecked in his life. Few people live that way, and we are probably better for it, but there is an undeniable authenticity to him.
He added some about the darker side of that ferocity:
Joseph F. Smith was a violent man. That is beyond dispute. Even in the rough and tumble world of the American West in the 19th-century, he was known to be unusually prone to violence.
His first marriage, to his cousin Levira Smith, devolved into a toxic relationship in which Joseph F. Smith beat her and said incredibly cruel things to her. Later in his life, in the 1870s, he severely beat his neighbor. Those are the only clear accounts of his violence, although I am certain there were more. He simply could not, or would not, control his rage when something triggered it.
At the same time:
He could be as loving and tender as he could be heartless and cruel. He had an especially soft spot for children. He was as free with his emotions of sadness and grief as he was with those of anger. I’m not sure what we can learn from them, other than that he was a human being, with all of the messiness that entails.
I mentioned some of this in my sacrament meeting talk that featured Joseph F. Smith, and noted that he did eventually recognize that he needed to control his temper to align himself with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Taysom made a similar observation, stating that:
He bore testimony of Christ constantly and never wavered from his belief in Christ’s divinity. He openly admitted that some of Christ’s teachings were difficult for him. He singled out the commandment to forgive and to pray for one’s enemies as being hard pills for him to swallow.
And while Taysom describes how he was a violent man and an abusive spouse, it’s unclear how much he was able to master his temper over time. Given that Taysom admitted that the last clear account of Joseph being violent was in the 1870s and Joseph F. Smith lived until 1918, he seems to have gained at least a degree of self-mastery.
For more on Joseph F. Smith–including some interesting info about his relationship with other Church leaders, his calling to the apostleship, and the long-term background in his life to Section 138–head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview.