Latter-day Saint History

How Did Joseph F. Smith Become the Prophet?

His succession to the presidency took an unusual route.

Joseph F. Smith became the sixth president of the Church in 1901. However, his succession to the presidency took an unusual route. For example, Brigham Young Jr. was ordained an apostle before Joseph F.—and George Q. Cannon missed out on becoming prophet by only six months. In this interview, Dennis B. Horne discusses the life and prophet succession of Joseph F. Smith.

Learn more by reading Dennis B. Horne’s article, “Joseph F. Smith’s Succession to the Presidency.”

Table of Contents

Who was Joseph F. Smith?

Joseph F. Smith was born to Hyrum Smith (brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, assistant President of the Church and Patriarch to the Church) and Mary Fielding Smith, at Far West, Missouri, November 13, 1838.

Hyrum was imprisoned in Liberty Jail and therefore did not get to see his new son for some four months. Baby Joseph F. was nearly killed by a mob that broke into his parent’s home (in the winter) when he was only a few days old. Hyrum was later murdered by a mob with Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail.

By age eight, Joseph F. was driving a team and wagon for his mother, and he was of tremendous help to his family while crossing the plains en-route to Salt Lake City. His mother taught him the gospel well, but he still grew up as a rough frontier lad.

Just before he turned fourteen his beloved mother Mary Fielding died. Joseph’s sister Martha was so devastated that she prayed to die, but instead was given a vision or dream in which she saw and conversed with her recently-deceased mother Mary and her father Hyrum Smith.

Joseph F. found himself in trouble at school.

In this special spiritual experience when she talked freely with her parents, they related their concern for Joseph and his brothers and sisters:

My father [Hyrum] asked me if we were all well. . . . My father then told my mother [Mary] she had done well by them [their children, as a mother] and he was perfectly satisfied and he would be with them from this time henceforth and forever. . . . They also said I must stay and take care of Joseph and talk to him and tell him to be a good boy and tell all the children to be good and they should be together again. . . . Father told me to tell the children to keep together. . . . to be submissive and mind what is said to them and where the home of the heads of the Church is, there let their home be and not ramble about. . . . Mother asked me if [their nanny] tried to get Joseph to read. I said yes. She said she was glad . . . she would like him to go to school if it were possible. She gave some other directions but seemed to be in a great haste saying they must go.

Joseph F. Smith retained childhood memories of Hyrum and Joseph the rest of his life and was always loyal to them.

Trouble at school

At fifteen, Joseph F. found himself in trouble at school. The schoolmaster thought his sister Martha needed disciplining and started after her with a leather strap. Joseph F. didn’t think he ought to and told him so—“don’t whip her with that” he said. The teacher then went after him with the strap, “but instead of whipping me, I licked him, good and plenty.”

Thereafter President Brigham Young told him, “If you’re old enough to lick your teacher you’re old enough to go on a mission!” Joseph F. was then given his endowment and sent to Hawaii (then the Sandwich Islands), where he grew up and gained a testimony.

In after years, he reminisced about those times:

I was taught from my childhood that the great work in which we are engaged is true, and designed for the salvation of mankind. Until I was fifteen years old I did not know this, but I believed it, my heart was in it, and my feelings were enlisted, and any opposite influence, obstacle or power with which I came in contact, even in my childhood, roused me in a moment, and I felt that I was for the truth and the people of God.

When I was sent on my first mission, though only fifteen years of age, I began to learn and sense things for myself, I began to receive and bear testimony of the truth.

In my weakness I endeavored to preach the Gospel, to tell people the truth, and to explain to them the way of life. This gave to me a knowledge and fixed my faith and feelings, and made them to me seemingly unchangeable.

Joseph F. Smith

On returning from his three-and-a-half-year mission, young Joseph was sent to help a company of Latter-day Saint men trying to stop or slow the progress of Johnson’s army, which was being sent to Utah to quell a non-existent “Mormon rebellion.”

What happened to Joseph F. Smith in the Sandwich Islands?

Young Joseph F. Smith, who had been on a mission to Hawaii, was called to accompany some of the senior apostles there to depose an apostate practicing priestcraft among the native Hawaiians

A bad storm meant rough seas around the harbor and Joseph F. knew it was unwise to attempt to land a small craft of passengers ashore. So he refused to go with the senior apostles who then thought him insubordinate.

It turned out they were wrong and he was right.

Joseph F. Smith with a group of Latter-day Saint leaders in Honolulu, Hawaii.

They were hit by a high wave while rowing and their little dinghy capsized. Joseph could only watch anxiously from the main vessel while attempts were made to rescue those who had been thrown into the sea.

After some time Elder Lorenzo Snow was found drowned and brought to shore, where he was miraculously revived. In after years Elder Snow told some of the Brethren, such as Elder Heber J. Grant, that he had been given to know during his near-death experience that Joseph F. Smith would become the prophet of God. (I was unable to find out further details about Pres. Snow’s experience wherein this was made known to him.)

This experience showed his Brethren that Joseph F. was no shrinking violet and could think and stand up for himself physically and spiritually. The revelation to President Snow also made quite a difference in how Joseph was viewed.

Were there other prophecies about him becoming the prophet?

Elder John Henry Smith, an apostle and member of the First Presidency (and father of George Albert Smith) said in a meeting that he had seen in a manifestation that Joseph F. Smith would become the President of the Church. (He also said he saw the [gold] plates).

And Elder Wilford Woodruff made a similar public prophecy, that Joseph F. would one day occupy the position his uncle the Prophet Joseph Smith had held.

How did seniority determine whether JFS or Brigham Young Jr. became prophet?

Two years after the resolution of the Hawaiian Mission matter (his second mission there, noted above), on July 1, 1866, President Brigham Young felt a distinct impression while meeting with some of the presiding Brethren.

He said:

Hold on, shall I do as I feel led? I always feel well to do as the Spirit constrains me. It is my mind to ordain Brother Joseph F. Smith to the Apostleship, and to be one of my counselors.

President Young then ordained Joseph F. as an Apostle and as an Assistant Counselor to the First Presidency. He also asked that the ordination be kept confidential until a vacancy arose in the Quorum of the Twelve and Joseph F. could be publicly sustained.

This fact is not really acknowledged in most official histories.

This sustaining and subsequent entry into the Quorum of the Twelve occurred over a year later at the October 1867 general conference. In this order of events it is important to recognize that Joseph F. was ordained an Apostle after Elder Brigham Young Jr., but he was set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before Brigham Jr.

The timing of these actions would become an important succession question in later years, when it was authoritatively decided (by President Snow) that date of entry into the Quorum dictated seniority. Thus it was that upon the death of President Snow, Joseph F. Smith became the President of the Church instead of Brigham Young Jr., who died as President of the Quorum of the Twelve.

(On a side note, it might be mentioned that President Brigham Young ordained some three or four of his sons as apostles, all at young ages. Yet, from hindsight, it is apparent that none of them really amounted to apostolic timber, as the saying goes. Brigham Jr. was the closest and the only one of the sons to be set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.)

Why did Wilford Woodruff counsel Lorenzo Snow to reorganize the First Presidency quickly?

Lack of unity in the presiding councils of the Church was the problem for each delay in reorganizing the First Presidency, from Brigham Young to John Taylor to Wilford Woodruff.

This fact is not really acknowledged in most official histories because it doesn’t look so good. But it was a complicated era for the early Church, with many considerations in play.

By the time President John Taylor died in July of 1887, the Quorum of the Twelve had not been able to meet and function as a complete unified council for some three years and had suffered from various internal conflicts. Some of the younger members of the Twelve had resented the administrative styles of President Taylor and his First Counselor, George Q. Cannon. They therefore emphatically resisted reorganizing the First Presidency without assurance that they would have greater influence regarding major decisions, especially those related to Church finances and their own position as a presiding Quorum in the Church.

Despite all that President Woodruff (the quorum president) and others could do, they were unsuccessful in obtaining a united consensus within the quorum for two years.

President Woodruff had not hesitated to seek for reorganization himself, but in consequence of the quorum’s disharmony, he had been forced to delay until 1889.

By unifying the Quorum and seeking to reorganize the First Presidency quickly, many issues could be resolved and the Quorum and Church could move forward. President Woodruff counseled President Snow to do this and President Snow counseled President Smith to do this, and it did in fact solve many problems.

It also became the tradition or custom from that day to this. Records of these reorganization meetings also indicate that the Spirit of the Lord and a spirit of unity was felt therein in great measure.

Did Joseph F. Smith ever see the Savior?

In response to a letter inquiring about a rumor of such an experience, Pres. Smith wrote:

Again you state that it is reported that I “stated in Rexburg, Idaho, in public, that I saw the Savior face to face and shook hands with him and saw the nail prints in his hands.”

In answer to this I have only to say that to the best of my recollection I never made any such statement as the above either in Rexburg or any other place. It is very strange indeed how such stories get in circulation.

Some people seem to be drawing largely upon their imagination but they should respect the truth sufficiently not to attribute these fancies to anyone else, not responsible for them.

Correspondence, Joseph F. Smith to Joseph J. Porter, [Escalante, Utah], February 11, 1902

This response is not an outright denial, but a refutation of a false rumor.

However, I personally am unaware of any direct statement or testimony from Joseph F. that he had been blessed to receive some kind of manifestation, whether by personal appearance or vision, of Jesus, until near the end of his life.

The vision of the redemption of the dead (D&C 138) contains wording assuring us that this prophet did indeed behold Jesus in a vision of the past: “ the Son of God appeared” (vs. 19-20, 23-24). There are also some statements from some of his final conference addresses that lead one to believe he had seen even more than this. Indications are that his final year of mortality, while physically trying for him, were spiritually exalting, with the veil becoming quite thin for him and divine knowledge being poured into his soul.

Is the president of the Church ordained or set apart?

In earlier decades these terms were used interchangeably but meant the same thing. As the Church has grown it has also formalized its terminology. Some of the earlier prophets were ordained and some were set apart, but whatever the wording, it meant they were being blessed to serve as the Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and President of the Church.

Joseph F. had his half-brother, John Smith, perform the blessing when he became Church President, The Journal History of the Church says this:

The work of setting apart was then attended to. President Joseph F. Smith, in accordance with his own wish, was ordained by Patriarch John Smith, . . . all the brethren present laying their hands on these brethren and assisting.

President Cannon used the wording of “setting apart” when he ordained Pres. Snow as Church President—but it meant the same thing.

I do not know what wording is used today, whether “setting apart” or “ordaining.” I do know that President Thomas S. Monson was extremely sensitive regarding usage of proper wording and that he had cards printed that contained proper wording for parts of certain ordinations to certain positions.

Again, I couldn’t say how the blessing was worded for President Nelson.

How was his rise to the presidency unique?

Joseph F. Smith was the first President to be born in the Church; he was not a convert in the sense of coming into the Church from outside the faith. Also, he had been tutored and trained for the position by being a Counselor in the First Presidency for many years, while none of his predecessors had.

Who was John R. Winder, and what made his calling to the First Presidency unique?

John R. Winder was a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric when called to serve as a counselor in the First Presidency—not a member of the Twelve—and he was never ordained an Apostle. This call was a mild surprise to the Brethren of the Twelve and to the Church.

President Smith did not select Elder Rudger Clawson as a counselor, as had President Snow, which was also a mild surprise. (Elder Clawson was sustained as second counselor in the First Presidency at the General Conference, but was never actually set apart; he only served for around a week before President Snow died, upon which he returned to the Quorum of the Twelve.)

While it had happened before, it was unexpected because most First Presidency Counselors were customarily chosen from the Quorum of the Twelve. President David O. McKay chose both Thorpe B. Issacson and Alvin R. Dyer as extra counselors and they were not from the Quorum of the Twelve. Off the top of my head I think that is the last time such has happened in the more modern church.

How close did George Q. Cannon come to becoming the prophet?

About six months. I believe this is one of many evidences that the Lord knows what He is doing with the lives and deaths of His apostolic servants, and He puts whom He wants in the position of Prophet and President.

What precedents were set then that are still in force today?

Seniority based on entrance into the Quorum of the Twelve instead of the date of ordination; continuation of the newer decision not to wait for a long time before reorganizing the First Presidency.

On a related subject, during these years there was no provision yet for an “Acting” President of the Quorum of the Twelve. That position came into being at Elder Orson F. Whitney’s suggestion to President Heber J. Grant during his administration.

Regarding President Smith’s remaining years, some three weeks after the general conference in which Joseph F. was sustained as President of the Church, he shared his feelings with a close associate.

Among other things, he wrote:

When confronted by the stern reality of the situation, I hardly know how to express the feelings of appreciation which well up in my heart; for I now keenly realize, as others have before me, that the eyes of the Lord, and those whom we have been wont to look up to, who are now on the other side of the veil, as well as my associate brethren in the flesh, are now directed towards me, as they have been towards my predecessors. But in contemplating the seriousness of the responsibility imposed upon me by the Lord and my brethren, its burden is at once comparatively lightened in the realization of the fact that you and I are the servants, servants of Him whom we have listed to obey; that the kingdom is the Lord’s, and that it is for Him to guide and direct, and us to follow. . . . My mind naturally runs backward at times; and the men who have figured prominently in their time now appear to be nearer and stand out more clearly and conspicuously, perhaps, than ever before; and I cannot help but wonder at the things which have been accomplished through them when the conditions surrounding them are considered.

Reviewing his presidency in a letter to a daughter, he wrote:

You asked me if I had ever received a Revelation since I have been the President of the Church. For me to answer you specifically and in detail would require much time and the history of many things. Besides it might appear to be in praise of myself or even egotistical. I would rather that those who possess the Spirit of revelation and discernment who know me and my course of life should speak for me than to speak for myself.

But to answer your question, I can and will say that the Lord has revealed to me many precious things both before and since my Presidency of the Church.

In fact—my whole life has been favored by a continuous inspiration from God which has led me in the performance of my duty each and every day thereof, inasmuch that I have been preserved from my enemies, from the power of the destroyer, from error in doctrine, in precept or example.

Under the influence of the Spirit of Inspiration and Revelation from God, I have been able to direct the affairs of the Church without one misstep or mistake. The Church has prospered under my administration, and has made steady growth and development in the face of the most determined opposition and wicked misrepresentation, ever wrought against it. And it has gained more friends and credit for efficiency and good works than in double that length of time before.

The history of my presidency will establish so far whether I have been inspired of God or of man.

The Lord has mercifully revealed to me my duty at every turn. He has shown me many of the wicked intentions of our enemies, and has preserved me from their cunning devices. He has given me strength and courage to reprove evildoers, and to speak the truth regardless of consequences.

Under my administration, peace, harmony and good will have prevailed in the general councils of the Priesthood to a remarkable degree, and the friends of the church have been devoted to the utmost extent toward the upbuilding of Zion.

For all of which I take no honor to myself, but give the credit unto God. The tree is known by its fruits; we do not gather grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles. I have no desire to extol myself or praise my efforts for the Church.

It has not seemed necessary for the Lord to require me to write any specific Revelation. The many we already have written are far too little read and understood. My plain duty has been to preach and teach observance and obedience to those we have, and it is revealed to me beyond a doubt that when we understand and obey them as we should, more will be given as the church and the world may need, and the Lord in his wisdom may see fit to give.

Affectionately your father, Joseph F. Smith.

President Smith died of pneumonia in November of 1918.

Thereafter, at President Heber J. Grant’s direction, much of the June 1919 General Conference was devoted to eulogizing him. In his own address, Elder Melvin J. Ballard said, “When the president was taken away, in the imaginations [yearnings] of my own mind by the enlightenment of the Spirit of God that came to me, I saw President Joseph F. Smith received on the other side [of the veil]. Tongue cannot tell the joy that was in Hyrum Smith’s heart when he received his beloved son, Joseph F. Smith.”

Some months after the general conference, Elder Orson F. Whitney dreamed of his beloved associate and friend: “Thursday or Friday night I dreamed of President Joseph F. Smith. He was very kind and genial, and put his arms around me, asking me to bless him. I awoke feeling happy.

Likewise, Elder Bruce R. McConkie saw President Joseph F. Smith at the funeral of his son, President Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder McConkie, a grandson-in-law of President Smith, informed his family that President Joseph F. Smith served as president of “some missionary organization that has worldwide jurisdiction” in the spirit world.

Elder Ballard continued, enlarging our vision of what awaits the faithful and obedient in the spirit world:

When [we] go to the other side, we shall find standing in places of honor, representing the Lord Jesus Christ, men like President Joseph F. Smith, who will be given greater authority and greater power than they ever had upon the earth. He is not shorn of anything because he is gone from this world.

The place and position which belongs to him is one of greater presidency, greater influence and power and authority than he has ever had in the earth; for over there are countless billions of our Father’s children who are receiving this gospel and they shall come under the administration of the elders of the Church who have been faithful; and presidency and power and authority shall belong to President Smith forever and ever, among the redeemed and the sanctified in the eternal world.

Lastly, President Joseph F. Smith was known in both his day and also in ours as a great doctrinal expounder of the gospel for the Church. The following is a sample of such inspired and insightful explanation, from a letter written to a member:

In all such matters as this there is one thing that should be kept constantly in mind, and that is, that the theories, speculations and opinions of man, however intelligent, ingenious and plausible, are not necessarily doctrines of the Church or principles that God has commanded his servants to preach. No doctrine is a doctrine of this Church until it has been accepted as such by the Church, and not even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority—the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints as a religious body. The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated until proper permission is given.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes, outside the direct and heaven-inspired utterances of the prophet, seer and revelator, four standards of doctrine, namely, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, containing the revelations of God given in times past and present for the guidance, salvation and exaltation of his people. These books have been accepted by the Church, in general conference assembled, as its doctrinal standards, and nothing outside of them, whether true or false, has any practical bearing or significance, so far as the conduct of the Church is concerned. If our elders would always remember these things, and preach and practice accordingly, the differences you speak of would speedily disappear. We should avoid disputations, whatever our differences of opinion may be, and following the advice of Paul, all learn to speak the same things. Now to answer your questions:

First – “Which is the God we worship throughout eternity, Father, Son or Adam?”

We are to worship the Father in the name of the Son.

Second – “Did Adam live [as] a mortal being twice?”

There is nothing in the records named that so states, and it is not a true doctrine. . . .

Fourth – “We lived our first estate before the world was; then, in Genesis 1:27, we find that ‘male and female created he them;’ next we have the fact, in Genesis 2:7, that man became a living soul, to live, suffer and die, and yet through these become as God is. Please explain fully the two seeming spiritual creations.”

They are not both spiritual creations; the first was spiritual, the second was temporal. This is evident from Genesis 2:4, 5, where, in reference to the first or spirit creation, it speaks of the making of “the earth and the heavens,” “every plant of the earth before it was in the earth,” and “every herb of the field before it grew,” and of man before there was “a man to till the ground.” It is probably the use of the word “soul,” in Genesis 2:7 that confuses you. With us the souls is not the spirit, as with the world; the soul is the spirit and the body combined (D&C 88:15). It was not until the spirit or “breath of life” passed into the body that the Lord God formed “of the dust of the ground,” that “man became a living soul.”

(Correspondence, Joseph F. Smith to Sister Lillie Golsan [Autaugaville, Alabama], July 16, 1902)

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Further reading

Joseph F. Smith succession to the presidency resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

One reply on “How Did Joseph F. Smith Become the Prophet?”

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say Joseph F. Smith became “President of the Church?” According to Michael Quinn, while it is true that all presidents are considered prophets, none of his successors was actually referred to as “The Prophet” until David O. McKay in the mid-Twentieth Century.

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