This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of a classic of Mormon biography, Joseph Fielding Smith’s Life of Joseph F. Smith. It is a book that is many things: part genealogy, part hagiography, part scrapbook, part apologia, part castigation of anti-Mormon sentiment of any shade, and part history of Mormonism’s transformation into a 20th century organization. Its 490 pages are replete with personal stories, the kind winnowed from a lifetime of observing a loved one and careful interviewing of those who knew JFS intimately. Conversely, Joseph Fielding Smith downplayed or ignored many notable character traits, flaws, and (shocker!) mistakes made by his father during the lengthy life JFS enjoyed. The writing is halting, stilted by the patchwork of block quotes presented at face value, often with little explanation or interpretation. Fortunately, recent scholarship is certainly opening up new avenues of study on the man and his life, and the LDS Church’s 2012 symposium on JFS was an important step toward addressing the many sides he possessed. Fellow JIer S. Taysom is currently working on the first full-length, scholarly treatment of JFS’s life, which has been badly needed for some time.
The colossal work that is Life of Joseph F. Smith (LJFS) nevertheless remains the starting point for any modern student of this very interesting man. Indeed, the only two full-length biographies on JFS written since LJFS couldn’t help but quote extensively from the work.[i] One of the chief strengths of the book remains the wealth of primary sources that Joseph Fielding Smith utilized, many of which are no longer available due to access restrictions (most of JFS’s later journals—post-1875—are supposedly located in the First Presidency’s vault at the LDS Church Headquarters). This makes it especially useful to modern students of JFS’s life. As an example of LDS biography, it set an important standard for those to follow, contextualizing the man within the framework of faithful participation in the world—a world often at odds with his beliefs.
I don’t intend this review to be comprehensive, but would rather like to introduce a few themes I noted lately, and invite my fellow JIers and our wonderful readers to add their own perspectives. Here are mine:
1. The importance of the Smith heritage
The fact that over a hundred pages of the book are devoted to outlining the Smith ancestry and explaining the experiences and mission of Joseph Smith Jr. as well as JFS’s father, Hyrum, should be an obvious sign of Joseph Fielding Smith’s priorities. JFS’s presidential years make up the other disproportionate segment of the book (314-485), while the sixty-two years from his birth to his ordination as Church President occupy less than half of the remaining pages (117-313). Joseph F. Smith appears as but part of a grand royal lineage, destined to govern the Lord’s restored kingdom, something that JFS himself believed and Joseph Fielding Smith continued to preach as doctrine. Writing of the birth of his father, the author stated,
In the midst of tribulation, sorrow and distress, when the dark clouds of persecution hung low over the members of the Church with a pall of menacing hate of overwhelming proportions; when it seemed that Satan had triumphed once again in driving righteousness and truth, but recently restored, from the earth, there was born…a man-child destined, in the due time of the Lord, to play a very important part in the great drama of the marvelous work which the Lord had just brought forth for the salvation of the children of men. This child was destined to walk in the steps of his beloved father and his illustrious uncle as the Viceregent of Jesus Christ on the earth. (117)
2. JFS’ actions were excusable—or, at least, explainable—in every instance.
If ever there was an action that could cause the slightest questioning of JFS’s character, Joseph Fielding Smith provided an explanation that justified JFS’s choices. A great example is the failure of his first marriage, to Levira Annette Clark Smith. The blame is placed entirely elsewhere with this description: “due to interference on the part of relatives, and because of the continued absence of her husband in mission fields and in ecclesiastical duties, [Levira] was drawn away and went to California, having obtained a separation,” (230). Scott Kenney’s excellent article on the early life of JFS clearly pointed out the larger role that JFS played in the separation, however.[ii] Many other such examples of “explaining away” JFS’s actions are found throughout LJFS.
3. JFS encountered an almost innumerable amount of people throughout his life.
Page after page, countless names are listed in LJFS, including mission companions, traveling companions, fellow-laborers in church responsibilities, ecclesiastical leaders of other denominations, leading brethren of the LDS Church, civic leaders, business partners, politicians, friends, enemies, family members, and others. Indeed, it would be nigh unto impossible to sort out all of his personal relationships, as JFS had a politician’s savvy for remembering names and establishing connections. Joseph Fielding Smith seems content to list the names and let the magnitude wash over readers.
4. JFS played an important role in gathering, preserving, and shaping the perception of Church history.
This is an evident focus of Joseph Fielding Smith’s discussion of his father’s apostolic and presidential years. We see JFS in the Church Historian’s office, on a Church History “mission” to gather testimony and artifacts regarding the early days of the church from William E. McLellin and David Whitmer (237-249), working to find the Solomon Spaulding manuscript while in exile (265-269), organizing the Bureau of Information and Church Literature to teach visitors to the Temple Block in Salt Lake City (352-353), and purchasing important Church History sites like the Solomon Mack farm, the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah, the Carthage Jail (429).
And these are just a few themes that struck me recently. After 75 years, there is still much to be mined from this rich volume. So, dear readership, I put the question to you: What do you see as key themes running through Life of Joseph F. Smith? What are its major strengths, weaknesses, contributions, and areas for further exploration?
[i] See Richard Nietzel Holzapfel and R.Q. Shupe, Joseph F. Smith: Portrait of a Prophet (Salt Lake: Deseret Book Company, 2000); and Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph F. Smith: Patriarch and Preacher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake: Deseret Book Company, 1984). Holzapfel and Shupe cite LJFS in 29 notes, by my count (the majority, 18, in Ch. 2, “From Birth to the Apostleship”) and Gibbons cites the work no less than 58 times. The only other book-length biographical treatment of the life of JFS is Blaine Yorgason’s From Orphan Boy to Prophet of God: The Story of Joseph F. Smith (Ogden: Living Scriptures, 2001), geared toward juvenile readers.
[ii] Scott Kenney, “Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph F. Smith,” Sunstone 120 (November 2001): 20-42.