Joseph F. Smith (1838–1917) is a towering figure in Latter-day Saint history, so I have waited and hoped for an academically rigorous biography about him for years. Stephen C Taysom delivered on that hope this year in Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith.
The flavor of Taysom’s work reminded me of John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet—a thoroughly researched biographical work that places a prophet-president in his context. Like Turner, Taysom’s work reveals the complexities of Joseph F. Smith as a person, allowing readers to get to know Joseph F. Smith more intimately. At times, the story takes a shocking turn, such as discussion of Joseph F. Smith’s violent tendencies or his lying about the performances of post-manifesto plural marriages. Even while showing Joseph F. at his worst, however, Taysom does contextualize Smith’s actions in a way that makes sense of them.
Taysom’s biography of Joseph F. Smith is very different from previous biographies about Smith. Francis M. Gibbons’ Joseph F. Smith: Patriarch and Preacher, Prophet of God is hagiographic to the point that a bullet list of life events and accomplishments would be about as useful for getting to know Joseph F. Smith. (To be honest, I struggled to get through Gibbons’ work because of how overly hagiographic it was, even though it’s relatively short.) The Life of Joseph F. Smith by Joseph Fielding Smith is valuable for the access it had to both primary sources and memories of the subject, but it is also the effort of a son and church leader to put his father and ecclesiastical predecessor in the best light possible. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith—the official church manual from around 2000—is a great collection of his teachings, but the history sections provide an inaccurate view of Joseph F. Smith, especially when it comes to his temper. Like a Fiery Meteor is of a different mold altogether and shows a different person because of its relatively objective approach.
Something that could have strengthened Like a Fiery Meteor was to not overstate the importance of Joseph F. Smith. President Smith is extremely important, but occasionally statements were made that shortsold the contributions of other, earlier Church leaders in an effort to hype up Joseph F. Smith. For example, Taysom states that: “Since Joseph Smith had introduced the concept [of proxy temple work] in the 1840s, it had struggled to find a champion, someone who possessed a passion for the work of the temple as well as a capacity for doctrinal thinking that could place proxy temple work within the larger whole of Mormon belief and practice” (357). This completely overlooks the role of Orson Pratt and Wilford Woodruff doing those exact things. Orson Pratt was one of the earliest individuals in the Church to systematically trace out his ancestors and to make sure that proxy baptisms were performed for them. He also oversaw the addition of many of the most important temple-related texts from Joseph Smith to the Doctrine and Covenants. Wilford Woodruff played a huge role in codifying temple rites and administration and for shifting the Latter-day Saint views towards performing proxy work to create a family-centric (rather than Church-centric) afterlife with his 1894 revelation. Many of the ideas that Joseph F. Smith articulated in his vision that is now D&C 138 had previously been expressed by Wilford Woodruff. Thus, on a couple of occasions Taysom was prone to overstate the contributions of Joseph F. Smith.
That concern aside, the book offers a lot of interesting and insightful discussion about Joseph F. Smith’s life and contributions to the faith. One area of discussion that I found particularly interesting was Joseph F. Smith’s role in establishing doctrine and interpretation of scriptures in the Church. In a lot of discussions outside of Taysom’s work, Joseph F. has tended to be overshadowed by James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts as a notable Latter-day Saint theologian during his time and by his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, after his time. What Tayson points out is that Joseph Fielding Smith was largely trained by his father in how he interpreted scripture and doctrine. Before either Talmage or Roberts published notable works, Joseph F. was to go-to church leader to settle doctrinal debates, and his time as president of the Church allowed him to normalize his views and approaches. Joseph Fielding Smith’s efforts to answer letters in print seems to have been modeled on his father’s work. Taysom does a great job of highlighting how deeply our belief system was impacted by Joseph F. Smith.
As the first academic biography of Joseph F. Smith, Stephen C Taysom’s Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith is an important and long-overdue contribution to Latter-day Saint history.