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Guest Post: Unexpected Tenderness: Joseph F. Smith on the Death of George A. Smith

By: Kevin Folkman - November 08, 2011

I’ve recently been reading both the biographies of Joseph F. Smith and portions of his personal journals for a project I am working on, and have come to appreciate him in a different light. In the past, having read some of his sermons and writings in such works as Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith, I have had a perception of him as strict, doctrinaire, and very stern. However, reading the journals and some letters to his adopted son, Edward Arthur Smith, I’ve seen the depth of feelings towards family, tenderness with those he loved, and more emotional undercurrents than his very formal public persona would seem to indicate.

Nowhere do those feelings show up more than in notes he made in his journal while serving as President of the European Mission and learning that his cousin and close friend, George A. Smith had died.

George A., the first cousin of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, was one of several close relatives that helped to look after Joseph F. after his mother died in 1852, leaving Joseph an orphan at age 13. George A. ordained Joseph an elder prior to the young 15-year-old’s departure on a four-year mission to Hawaii. After a second short mission to Hawaii, George hired Joseph to work with him at the Church Historian’s office adjacent to George A.’s home. There, Joseph became acquainted with young Julina Lambson, the niece of George’s wife Bathseba. After receiving a charge from Brigham Young to take a second wife, Joseph and Julina were married in 1866, further strengthening the ties between Joseph F. and George A. Smith, who had become almost a second father to Joseph.

In 1875, Joseph F. Smith had been in residence at the European Mission Headquarters in Liverpool for several months, dutifully recording the comings and goings of missionaries, booking passage for returning missionaries and immigrants, and administering the affairs of the church in Great Britain the continent beyond, when word came in a telegram from emigration agent W. C. Staines on September 2nd of the death of George A. Smith the day before. I leave it to Joseph to share his feelings as recorded them in his journal over the next few days.

Wednesday Sept 1, 1875

[presumably added later at the very bottom of the page:]

President George A. Smith died today. God knows best!

Sept 2, 1875 Thursday

This evening I received a cable dispatch from Elder W. C. Staines – saying “Pres. Geo. A. Smith died yesterday.”

I cannot tell with what terrible weight this melancholy intelligence fell upon my soul. But for the forewarnings and fears – akin to dread, I have had, it would have seemed impossible. My heart tells me it is a terrible reality.

On no other man in the Church did greater responsibility rest. President Youngs feeble health and exhausted vigor, made the necessity. President Smith was regarded his mainstay, and the hopes of the people were centered on him, in the event of President Youngs death, he being a younger man, only 58 the 26 of last June. The people loved him as they did President Young or as they did the Prophet Joseph Smith. No man ever possessed more supremely the love and confidence of the entire Church. He never preached a false doctrine, nor to my knowledge ever made a mistake in his whole public career, neither religiously nor politically. His whole great soul was centered in the Kingdom of God, and his most valuable life was spent in the interests of the people. He scarcely thought of himself or saught the interest of his family except as a part of the whole.

I cannot however satisfy my feelings, nor do justice to him in a diary. The world has lost a bright light and an honest man the Saints a wise and faithful counselor, a prophet, seer and revelator, and as true a friend as Christ the Lord. As for myself, I feel as if he were my own father, and my greatest earthly benefactor.

May God bless and comfort his family and preserve his children in the paths of righteousness and truth forever.

Friday, September 3, 1875

My heart is filled with grief & sorrow for the loss of President George A. Smith. O! what a loss in this trying hour to President Young and the Church! Now when it would seem as though all hell was let loose to war against the Priesthood!

How much longer O! Lord wilt thou suffer the wicked to rage and the heathen to imagine a vain thing! They were as ravening wolves after the blood of thine anointed and as fierce lions after their prey!

Truly God is more long suffering and merciful than man.

Saturday September 4, 1875

[Joseph lists several letters of condolence he has written to several individuals, then makes this entry:]

I tried to write an editorial for the Star, but my soul was so bowed down with sorrow and my feelings so wraught up, that I could not write. I dare not trust myself. I therefore prepared only a few lines on the “Demise of President George. A. Smith”. My whole being seems oppressed with a sense of loneliness. I cannot see him in my mind, only in that better sphere beyond this mortal life — beyond our reach in this world, and he will come to us no more!

His home looks empty. The councils of the Priesthood deserted! O! how I loved him! how I honor his memory!

Within a few short weeks, Joseph F. Smith wrapped up his mission responsibilities and returned to Utah. For a man so firmly in control of his emotions in the public sphere, these brief entries open up the intense personal feelings which Joseph F. held for family and friends, and exhibit a much deeper sense of love and emotion than I previously had experienced. For those of us who have known him as a bastion of orthodoxy in the church, I’ve found these journal entries and letters to show a more personable, caring, and compassionate man than I had otherwise known.



23 Comments »

  1. When the RS studied the teachings of Joseph F Smith (must have been 1999), I was called to be one of the teachers. I had recently lost a 21-year-old son to cancer and it was my first calling after that experience. I immersed myself in the story of his life and came to love him. His teachings brought comfort and his example brought courage. I particularly was impressed with his immense grief when his little daughter died. Years later, he wrote a journal entry on the anniversary of her death that still was filled with grief at her loss. It reminded me that we don’t get over the loss of a loved one – we move on and live life, but we never forget. He is one of my favorite prophets

    Comment by Rosemary — November 8, 2011 @ 6:50 am

  2. One of my early historical projects was the biography of Josiah Francis Gibbs, a man with a wonderful LDS background and early life of service, but who turned against the Church around the turn of the 20th century and became a bitter anti-Mormon lecturer and writer. He was at the height of his ugliness during Joseph F. Smith’s administration, disagreed with him politically, and never missed an opportunity to find fault with him in the most vicious terms. I realized Gibbs wasn’t being fair — nobody is as one-sided as he painted Joseph F. Smith — and I was sure that I was wise enough and fair enough not to fall for Gibbs’s extremism, but I found after a while that I had unconsciously adopted Gibbs’s attitude toward JFS. It took me a while, and involved a lot of deliberate reading of JFS writings, to undo the damage that had been done by Gibbs, and to be able to appreciate JFS again — and I loved reading Kevin’s post as a reminder of who JFS really was.

    That experience, by the way, was a vivid illustration to me that we need to be alert to who we keep company with intellectually and emotionally, and that we can adopt ideas and attitudes unconsciously, even against our conscience, when we spend too much time in the wrong mental company.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2011 @ 7:40 am

  3. What a lovely post to remind me of the many facets of these men who lead us.

    Comment by Paul — November 8, 2011 @ 8:32 am

  4. I just noticed that the last half dozen words of the last sentence hadn’t posted, for some reason. They’re there now. Sorry, Kevin.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  5. Last year when my niece died, my brother wrote a blog post about her death, and he mentioned the experience of Joseph F. Smith and the loss of Smith’s daughter, Alice, “his ‘Darling Alibo.'” President Smith’s are some of the most poignant words on the topic of grief in all our Mormon literature, and his musing on grief and loss during the difficult days of World War I and the Flu Epidemic gave us one of the most moving sections in modern scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 138.

    Thank you for this post, Kevin.

    Comment by Researcher — November 8, 2011 @ 8:50 am

  6. Ardis, you’ve described the same experience I have had with several historical figures in the church. The more I get to know these folks through reading about them, and reading the things they wrote, the more I find to admire about them, even in their weaknesses and shortcomings. Joseph F. Smith certainly maintained a separation between his personal and public images. His personal letters and journal entries show a much warmer and compassionate personality than he exhibited in his public discourses, and it has been a great pleasure to get to know more about him.

    Thanks for the kind comments, all.

    Comment by kevinf — November 8, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  7. Kevin, thanks for the post! These historical “peeks” into the lives of those who were church leaders bring comfort to me. By showing the “personal sides” as they go through their trials and tribulations and how they get through them, that strengthens me to be able to get through mine.

    Comment by Cliff — November 8, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  8. I have to admit I have issues with Joesph F. Smith, these include but are not limited to,his purge of the Chamberlin brothers at BYU in 1910 his misleading testimony about post mainfesto polygamy at the Smoot hearing.

    But I too have read his accounts of the grief he suffered at the death of his young children. I sense a softer, and more spiritual side of the man than you see in his public personae.

    His vision of the redemption of the dead that became D&C 138 makes up for all of his flaws and weaknesses.

    Comment by John Willis — November 8, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  9. Interesting that in his praise of George A, he comments, “He never preached a false doctrine, nor to my knowledge ever made a mistake in his whole public career,” which leads me to assume that most church leaders in his experience did.

    Evidently the popular belief among active mormons that the prophets are infallible has settled on us slowly. I can’t remember a time that any church leader has been corrected or admitted being wrong on anything.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 8, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  10. The Other Clark, the example that springs to mind is Bruce R. McConkie in 1978 following the revelation on priesthood.

    Comment by kevinf — November 8, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  11. #9 The Other Clark, I’m intrigued that your assumption is that most leaders had public errors. I don’t draw that as a reasonable conclusion from President Smith’s statement; he simply states that Geo. A. did not. It is as likely that such public mistakes were rare.

    That fact that someone pays me a compliment does not mean that no one else is deserving of the same compliment.

    Comment by Paul — November 8, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  12. I stand corrected on both points!

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 8, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  13. Nice work, Kevin. I love learning about someone’s new discovery, especially when it concerns an interesting pesonality trait of a well-known figure, like this one. Thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — November 8, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  14. The Other Clark, to your point about “public errors”, I’d like to admit that I apparently have messed up the distinction between immigration and emigration in the OP. If I am using them correctly, people leaving the UK for Utah would be emigrants until they reached the port in New York or Philadelphia, where they would be met by Immigration Agent W. C. Staines. Or at least, I think that is what I meant to say. Probably. Or maybe I was right in the first place. Nah, probably not.

    Comment by kevinf — November 8, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

  15. Actually, kevin, people can be immigrants and emigrants simultaneously. From England, for example, they were all emigrants, and from America, or Utah, they were immigrants.

    Back to your post, though, this line intrigued me:

    I have had a perception of him as strict, doctrinaire, and very stern.

    Intriguing because that is a good description of how a lot of the church (including me) felt about his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, up until the time that he became the president of the church when Pres. McKay died. But the 18 months or so that Joseph Fielding Smith served as president of the church proved that we were all wrong.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 8, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  16. There must be some imaginary dotted line somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic where the description as emigrant vs immigrant changes. The International Immigration/Emigration Dateline, perhaps?

    Mark, that exactly echoes my own memories of Joseph Fielding Smith in the transition from apostle to President of the Church. I distinctly remember the fears of a churchwide mandate for 90 minute sacrament meetings, which did not take place, for example.

    Comment by kevinf — November 8, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  17. For some reason, the movements of Mormons across the plains, including those who began their travels in Europe, have almost always — then and now — been called “emigrations” (emigrants, Emigration Agent, etc.), regardless of whether the speaker/writer was standing in Liverpool watching them sail away, or standing in the Utah canyons watching them arrive. You can always offer the historical defense if anybody ever calls you on using “e-” rather than “im-”

    I guess our civil disobedience kept company with our grammar disobedience.

    And, by the way, congratulations to everybody for the discussion of the last half dozen or so comments. In some neighborhoods, TOClark’s honest comment would have called forth a rancorous catalog of every point — real and (often) imagined — where any church leader offered/received/merited correction. Not you-all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

  18. I always enjoy learning more about our leaders from their words, not from some editor or biographer. Thank you for this personal glimpse. My own second great grandfather, Samuel Whitney Richards lost several children. The thing that endeared me to him more than anything was his journal account of watching his daughter die. It tore my heart out reading it.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — November 8, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

  19. #15 Mark, “But the 18 months or so that Joseph Fielding Smith served as president of the church proved that we were all wrong.”

    Or at least that he behaved differently while serving as the president than when he served as an apostle. I was a teenager living far from Salt Lake for President Smith, but I remember President Benson’s behavior as president of the church was different from expectation based on his reputation as an apostle.

    I suspect truth is somehwere in the middle: it’s easy to imagine that there is a tempering of the man who hold the office of president, and it’s also certainly true that public perception of these men is less complete than who they really are.

    Comment by Paul — November 9, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  20. Kevin, I’m curious what JFS biographies you have been reading and which you consider to be the best.

    Comment by Craig M. — November 9, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  21. #18- Has the bio of S.W. Richards ever been published? I’d be very interested in reading it.

    #20-The only bio of JFS I’m aware of is the one written by his son. If there are others, how does the son’s treatment compare to other authors?

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 9, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  22. Craig,

    I’m currently reading the Francis M. Gibbons bio right now. I would rate is as excellent for the average reader, well written and entertaining, but light on references. I’d also say that it is not on a par with, for example, Prince’s David O. McKay biography, in that it is more devotional and not as rigorous. It also is not so much a cultural biography, and doesn’t do a very thorough job of positioning JFS in the context the times. I am planning on reading the Holzapfel biography next.

    Comment by kevinf — November 9, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  23. Thanks for letting me know Kevin. I haven’t read any of the Gibbons biographies, preferring what I presume to be more academic treatments elsewhere, but I’m sure they can be very useful. The only biographical material I have read on JFS is Scott Kinney’s article on the young JFS from Sunstone, which was very interesting but seemed to greatly emphasize the sensational.

    Comment by Craig M. — November 9, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

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