Joseph F. Smith is known for many things. He was the son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of the Prophet Joseph. He served a legendary mission to Hawaii. And he received the vision of the redemption of the dead (D&C 138). The prophet’s life was also filled with lesser-known complexities that make him an especially fascinating figure. In this interview, Stephen C. Taysom elaborates on his new biography of Joseph F. Smith.
Read the book by Steven Taysom, Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith.
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How is Joseph F. Smith generally known among Latter-day Saints?
I can’t answer this scientifically, because I have not had the opportunity to conduct a survey (although such a survey would be fascinating) so 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.
What would you write if you had to sum up his life in a few sentences?
If I could do that, I wouldn’t have had to spend 10 years writing this book! Since you have asked, however, I will try. 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.
Where does the title come from?
My book is called Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith. The title is from a letter that Joseph F. Smith wrote in 1888, in which he described himself as “almost like a fiery meteor” between the time of his mother’s death and his call to missionary service.
The image is one of speed, loss of control, and brutal heat.
How might you judge the strengths and weaknesses of your own book?
The book’s main strength is that it provides a multi-perspective view of Joseph Fielding Smith’s life and grounds those views in the facts of the world in which he lived.
Weaknesses? I don’t want to give reviewers any ideas. I’ll let them find the weaknesses.
What most surprised you while researching his life?
I was most surprised by how much he felt like an outsider within the Latter-day Saint leadership, even as a member of the First Presidency. His entire life, he thought of himself as being treated as a second class citizen by Church leaders. There was some small amount of truth in this perception, but not much.
How does the reality of his experiences in Hawaii align with the popular narrative?
His experiences in Hawaii were far more complex than is often discussed. This is especially true of his first mission there. He was very frank in his journals about his view of most Hawaiians as dirty, ignorant, lazy, and full of disease. Some of that was tempered over the years as he visited, but some of it was not.
What role did violence play in his life?
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.
What were some of his opposite traits? What can we learn from them?
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.
What were the circumstances under which he was ordained an apostle?
He was ordained an Apostle and placed in the First Presidency in 1866 by Brigham Young. Young was holding a prayer circle, and when he finished, he simply said that he had decided to call Joseph Fielding Smith to the First Presidency.
I argue in the book that the timing suggests that this may have been done in response to the sons of Joseph Smith, who were now part of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and were planning to come to Utah. I argue that Young wanted a “Smith of his own” in the hierarchy to blunt the impact that the sons of Joseph might have on the people in Utah.
What did he think about Brigham Young?
Joseph F. Smith certainly respected Brigham Young and sustained him as a prophet. He was not personally close to Young in the way that he was to George Albert Smith or even George Q. Cannon. I would describe their relationship as professional, but they seemed to exist in two separate worlds, with surprisingly little interaction.
What do we know about his testimony of Christ?
Well we know that he had one. 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.
What are a few interesting observations you made while reading his letters?
Joseph F. Smith’s letters were truly a treasure trove. Unlike his journals, which were pretty banal and matter of fact, his letters are where he reveals his true feelings and thoughts.
One interesting thing is that he insisted that all who wrote him provide dates on the letters themselves. He often got mail in big batches and some of his family members never dated their letters, so he had to try and figure out what order to put them in.
It drove him insane and he gave the family pretty good tongue lashings about it. He also chided them if they sent short letters rather than waiting until they had more to write. He was always mindful of the cost of postage.
Those are things that are mostly about his attitude toward letters, but if people want to know all of the interesting things he included in the letters, they will have to read the book!
How might he have been building toward D&C 138 for much of his life?
The short answer, and probably the best one, is that he dealt with tragic losses of loved ones from the dawn of his memory. Starting with his father when he was 5, his mother a few short years later, and not ending until the loss of his son Hyrum when Joseph F. Smith was almost 80 (the last year of his life).
He lost 12 children in between. Joseph F. Smith took the death of his children harder than the average man during the 19th century. At least, he was far more prone to express his intense, almost savage, grief at these losses than his contemporaries. I think that his near constant feeling of loss, coupled with his fascination with Joseph Smith’s teachings about temples, led him to think deeply about the connection between family and heaven.
He thought much more deeply about a family-centered heaven than any Latter-day Saint Church leader had before. So, I think that the revelation on the redemption of the dead came to him drop by painful drop over a long lifetime of suffering.
What else might we know if we had access to all of his journals?
Well, that’s the big mystery isn’t it? Obviously having access to his journals from the last 20 years of his life would help us better understand things like the Smoot hearings and the ending of plural marriage.
But, as I mentioned before, his letters are better at that anyway and we have many of them from that period. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that his journals that are unavailable would provide any earth shattering information.
What fascinates you about Joseph F. Smith?
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.
What’s the biggest outstanding JFS question you wish we had an answer for?
He claimed to have very clear memories of his father and uncle Joseph. I would like to probe that a bit, because I think that his memories of them are largely artifacts cobbled together by things he heard from other people. I would also like to know exactly how the vision of the redemption of the dead came to him in its final form.
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About the interview participant
Stephen C. Taysom is as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religions at Cleveland State University. He holds a Masters and PhD in religion from Indiana University, and specializes in the history of religion in America. Taysom is the author of several books and articles, including Like a Fiery Meteor, Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds, and “Satan Mourns Naked Upon the Earth.”
- Joseph F. Smith in the Emmeline B. Wells Diaries
- Joseph F. Smith in Saints 3
- The Fallout Between Frank Cannon and Joseph F. Smith
- Susa Young Gates and D&C 138
- Examining the Purported Joseph Smith Photo Provenance
- Virtual Tour of the Salt Lake City Cemetery
Joseph F. Smith biography resources
- Like a Fiery Meteor: The Life of Joseph F. Smith (University of Utah Press)
- Scholarly Inquiry: A Conversation with Stephen C. Taysom (Juvenile Instructor)
- Joseph F. Smith (Church History Topics)
- President Joseph F. Smith’s Special Witness of Jesus Christ (Truth Will Prevail)
- The Great World of the Spirits of the Dead: Death, the Great War, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Context for Doctrine and Covenants 138 (BYU Studies)
- Personal Glimpses of Joseph F. Smith: Adolescent to Prophet (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph Smith (Sunstone)
- Preparation of Joseph F. Smith: I Am Clean Dream (Latter-day Prophets)