Nate?s Notes: The 2012 Church History Symposium

By September 15, 2012

So these have been a long time coming, and I?m sure I have forgotten a number of highlights I didn?t get a chance to jot down during the presentations I attended.  The 2012 Church History Symposium was held March 2 and 3, jointly hosted by the Church History Department and BYU?s Religious Studies Center and themed on the life and times of Joseph F. Smith.  The RSC is planning on publishing selected speeches from the symposium sometime in early 2013, and has pledged to post video proceedings on their website (they have only M. Russell Ballard’s keynote address available currently)?but in the meantime I thought it would be good to have some discussion on the conference here at the good ol’ JI blog.

Friday?s presentations took place at the Conference Center Theater at Temple Square, and Saturday?s sessions were held at the BYU Conference Center.  This was not the first time that Joseph F. Smith and the era of his leadership have been the subject of a major LDS conference; the 2000 Symposium of the now-defunct Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History was titled ?Times of Transition, 1890-1920: The Church Meets the Twentieth Century.?  Many of the papers presented then were themed around his presidential years and the administrative challenges he faced.

The 2012 Symposium actually seemed to add elements, actually, even with its primary focus on Joseph F. Smith, rather than a chronological time period (the symposium was subtitled ?Reflections on the Man and His Times”).  Topics ranged from biography to administrative assessments, liturgical studies, and more.  I attended mostly biographical presentations, but perhaps other attendees would like to share their insights on additional sessions.

Friday, March 2

Opening Address:   Matthew O. Richardson, ?Block 57: Establishing a Lasting Church Headquarters, 1901-1918?

Although I had been expecting Robert Millet to open the conference, I was delighted to listen to Richardson speak.  A BYU religion professor and 2nd counselor in the Sunday School General Presidency,  he and I met only once before (when I taught his daughter at Timpanogos H.S.).  His speech centered on the physical location of the Church General Headquarters, known contemporarily as Block 57, and its growth and change during Joseph F. Smith?s presidency.

Joseph Don Carlos Young, at the time the Church Architect, proposed during John Taylor?s presidency the building of a new, grand Church Headquarters building that would have a Victorian-Romanesque design.  His sketches suggested a sprawling complex reminiscent of Versailles, and the Taylor administration tabled the proposal.  When Joseph F. Smith took the reins in 1901, Church membership worldwide had exceeded 200,000, and the need for an edifice representing the ?public face? of the Church remained unfulfilled.  Gradually, over the ensuing 17 years, buildings symbolic of the varied priorities of the Church rose on Block 57.  First to go up was the LDS Business College in 1901, with additional campus buildings Barrett Hall in 1902 and the Brigham Young Memorial Building in 1903.  Education, Richardson argued, was very important.  By 1910 the Bishop?s Building and the Deseret Gymnasium were added; the former housing the Presiding Bishopric and other Auxiliary officers with the express purpose to administer ?social and serviceable? activities to church members; the latter to emphasize physical or temporal growth.  The goal was to provide a ?living example of perfect [individual] development,? according to Richardson.

In 1911 the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) was completed.  Richardson spent some time describing the great undertaking this was, but minimalized the controversies over its construction by saying that Joseph F. Smith viewed it as a necessary representation of the greatness of the Gospel.  And yet there was still no official Administration Building.  Anthon H. Lund, Joseph F.?s counselor in the First Presidency, began pushing for a building with a threefold purpose:  first, it could serve as a functional headquarters; second, it needed to be able to house the Church?s ?gems,? meaning its important papers and other historical treasures; and third, it should serve as a visible marker of the growing Church.  A large-scale campaign to raise money for the Church Administration Building began in 1914, with an emphasis on donating above and beyond tithing.  Proceeds from Andrew Jensen?s book sales were also used in constructing a building designed to be fire, water, and earthquake proof.  Completed in 1917, the Church Administration Building still houses the offices of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

To Richardson, this growth of Block 57 mirrored important shifts for the Church worldwide as membership grew and became more visible.  He did not delve into details here, leaving it essentially at that.

Breakout Session I:

Yours truly opened the first breakout session in the Conference Center Theater.  My remarks were titled ?Triumphs of the Young Joseph F. Smith? and I discussed foundational experiences that JFS relied upon for strength in his developing years.  While he was known as a temperamental youth (as Amanda HK illustrated in her now-famous post on the Great Hawaiian Cat-Massacre of 1857), I focused on events like his baptism, his patriarchal blessing, and the small, tender mercies he noted frequently in his diaries.   I concluded that Joseph F. Smith began to develop spiritual ears early in his life, honing them over the course of his 80 years.

Eric Marlowe and Isileli Kongaika, from BYU-Hawaii, spoke in turns about Joseph F. Smith?s second Hawaiian mission, on which JFS accompanied Apostle Ezra T. Benson (and his old mission companion, William W. Cluff) to remove Walter M. Gibson from his assumed position of dominance over the Islands Saints.  Much of the presentation was old news, retellings of accounts already found in Joseph Fielding Smith and Francis Gibbons? biographies of JFS.  However, Marlowe did share some remarkable letters from the missionaries to Brigham Young detailing activities after Gibson was ousted.  To rejuvenate the mission, the missionaries instituted an island Reformation, rebaptizing the few members who chose to return.  They informed BY that they could secure a new site for gathering the Saints?some place more desirable than Lanai, at least?for $7,000 to 14,000.   Laie on the island of Oahu was chosen as that new gathering place.

Devin Jensen rounded out the session, giving remarks that David M. Whitchurch had prepared but was unable to deliver.  Jensen shared personal glimpses of Joseph F. Smith, most gleaned from letters to and from his sister Martha Ann Smith Harris.  The letters were discovered by Carole Call King and eventually donated to the Church History Library (where they can be found in the Carole Call King papers–MS 16763). Themes Jensen noted were Joseph F.?s passion for education, his love of the Gospel, and his love for family.

After a dinner break, M. Russell Ballard gave an evening address and told a number of stories about Joseph F. Smith, most of which are fairly well-known.

Saturday, March 3:

George S. Tate gave the opening address on Saturday Morning, arguing for additional context important to understanding Joseph F. Smith?s 1918 Vision of the Redemption of the Dead (later canonized as D&C 138).  Three major contextual elements are crucial to understand, Tate argued:  first, Joseph F. Smith?s numerous personal experiences with death (of his own family members); second, the unparalleled carnage of World War I and ensuing rise in spiritualism worldwide; and third, the new and horrific Spanish Influenza.  Between the War and the Flu, as many as 100 million had died?and it is with this in mind that we should view Joseph F. Smith?s reflections that culminated in D&C 138.

Breakout Session 1:

Fellow JIers J. Stapely, Brett D., and J. Stuart all presented in separate sessions Saturday morning; I?ll let them share any insights they have.

Patrick Bishop opened the first session I attended on Saturday, and gave what was one of my favorite presentations.  He discussed the question of apostolic succession raised when Brigham Young began ordaining apostles that were not members of the Quorum of the Twelve, including his own sons (and Joseph F. Smith).  The question of seniority as apostles became important for succession to the Presidency of the Church, as the tradition stands that the Senior Apostle is both President of the Quorum of the Twelve and next in line to be ordained Church President.  After deliberating, the leading brethren determined in council that, in keeping with the spirit of D&C 42, the ordination had to be public, not private; that is, with the knowledge and approval of multiple church leaders.  The ordination of Brigham Young, Jr. had been in private, though it happened chronologically before Joseph F. Smith?s ordination.  JFS and BY Jr. then switched places in seniority?with the end result that JFS, not BY Jr., was ordained Church President following Lorenzo Snow?s death in 1901.

Craig Manscill followed, speaking about the Smoot hearings and the Church?s official response.  He gave a thorough overview of background related to Smoot?s nomination, JFS?s support for Smoot, and the hearings.  The hearings resulted in the Church taking a census of polygamous relationships then extant, the issuance of the ?Second Manifesto,? the publishing of the (original) Manifesto in the D&C, missionary efforts were curtailed in some areas (Manscill named NYC and Germany), the selling of some Church industrial holdings, and even personal repercussions for JFS.  He paid a $500 fine for unlawful cohabitation, and had no children with his wives after 1906 (though there could have been other reasons for that, as well).  In the October 1907 General Conference, Orson F. Whitney took 55 minutes to read the Church?s official response:  JFS had the Conference ratify the document with a standing vote.

Ronald G. Watt examined the Star Valley Wyoming Stake as a proving ground for requiring Word of Wisdom compliance for priesthood ordinations.  I missed most of his speech, unfortunately.

Breakout Session 2:

Mark Ogletree examined JFS?s fathering practices.  He argued that JFS was a great parent because he had ?great access to gospel truth.?  But he also categorized JFS as a ?colonial parent in a very real sense?, which meant that his parenting style was imbued with little permissiveness, high expectations, and?because of the high demands on his time, relatively little time with each child.  Nevertheless, JFS would ?make the rounds? and try to spend as much time as he could with each child, though this would become logistically more difficult as his family grew and his wives each eventually occupied their own home.  In terms of ?love languages? JFS was most adept at physical affection and gift giving, according to Ogletree.

Kevin Folkman examined the relationship between JFS and his adopted son, Edward Arthur [Thorpe] Smith, whom JFS brought back from England after his first British Mission (1860-1863).  Folkman?s wife?s family is descended from Edward, and have in their possession numerous insightful letters from JFS to Edward.

J.B. Haws explored the sometimes precarious relationship between JFS and his older half-brother, Church Patriarch John Smith.  John, who issued more than 20,000 patriarchal blessings during his time in the office (1854-1911), struggled with a number of things that invited correction by Church leaders:  he retained a closeness to the RLDS church, he struggled with the Word of Wisdom, and he seemed not totally committed to polygamy (which Haws did not explain; though John married only one polygamous wife, and she bore him only one of his ten children).  Despite these problems?or perhaps because of them, JFS elevated the office of Church Patriarch, also elevating the Smith legacy in the process.  I had written in my notes to see E. Gary Smith?s book on Church Patriarchs; I assume Haws referred to it for further explanation.

Final Address:
Joseph Fielding McConkie gave the final address, on JFS?s doctrinal contributions.  He argued that hatred of the Church reached a fever pitch during JFS?s presidency not because of polygamy?s hanging legacy, but because of the principle of revelation.  McConkie then examined the proclamation ?On the Origins of Man? (penned by O.F. Whitney), the 1911 ?BYU Crisis?, and the 1916 proclamation on the Father & the Son in this context.  In teaching doctrine, McConkie argued, JFS applied a few main ideas:

  1.  Worldly theories were merely a scaffolding for research; we should accept the basic truths of the gospel.
  2. That which does not edify is not of God.
  3. Litmus test:  is it in harmony with revealed divine truth?
  4. All truths are not equal; the greater the truth, the greater the opposition to the truth.

And thus ended an excellent conference.  Understandably, most of the presentations highlighted the positive contributions of JFS.  I think it was an important step forward in understanding the interrelated aspects of his complex life.  As my fellow JIers and many of our followers will attest, however, there are still myriad unexplored avenues, made more complex by the mountain of documents JFS generated–and the intensely complex character he possessed.  I look forward to the published proceedings of the conference, which should be out in early 2013.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. Thanks, Nate.

    Comment by David G. — September 15, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  2. I found the conference very interesting. I shared a session with a BYU Rel Ed proffesor who closed his paper, “in the Jesus Christ, Amen” and a student who was not Mormon. I think I ended out making some points that contrasted with both of them. I certainly had fun, but it did feel sort of odd. I enjoyed the papers on temple construction and I saw Folkman and Haws’ session and found it very interesting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 15, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  3. Thanks, Nate; these conferences are always an intriguing mix, as J points out. Wish I could have been there.

    Comment by Ben P — September 15, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  4. JFS is such an interesting figure and the diversity of the approaches apparent in the conference is strong evidence for the fascinating lives that Smith continues to live in Mormon memory. Did I mention I’m writing a book about him?

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 15, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Thanks for the report, Nate.

    Taysom–we all anxiously await the book.

    Comment by Christopher — September 15, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

  6. The session I participated in was interesting as well. I was the only one who didn’t close with “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” One was purely a historical narrative , mine was doctrinal development, and the other was a testimony. I loved the experience, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it. It made me think about different areas and reasons for Mormon History.

    This conference made me fall in love with JFS. I agree with Chris, we all look forward to your book, Steve!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 15, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

  7. I hope it’s a picture book, Taysom. Ideally, a pop-up book.

    Comment by smb — September 15, 2012 @ 7:39 pm

  8. smb, a pop-up book may be all that I can manage. And instead of a book tour I would set up a traveling puppet show wherein puppet Joseph F. Smith would get revenge on puppet “Father Lott”

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 15, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  9. I presented on Saturday morning with Casey Griffiths and Richard Cowan. My memory is sketchy on details, but Casey talked about the history of the seminary program, specifically the first seminary founded in 1912. Richard talked about developments in the auxiliary organizations during the JFS years. My paper was about the Relief Society Magazine, which was founded in 1914 with Susa Young Gates as editor. I talked about it as a “happy mixture of progressivism and conservatism,” which was how Susa described JFS himself.

    My favorite part was during the Q&A when a young woman in the audience piped up and wanted to know (paraphrasing) what happened to women in the church during this period. Didn’t they used to be able to give blessings and do all kinds of things that were taken away? As you can imagine, the other panelists immediately looked at me to answer that one.

    For the upcoming volume on the symposium I did a chapter on the JFS wives, particularly how they were presented in the RSM. I felt I couldn’t do the RSM justice in the time I had to submit for the volume, and in talking to Craig Manscill we noted that there was a gaping lack of information about the wives. So that’s how I came to do that subject. It was a very fun paper to write and I’ve just scratched the surface.

    Comment by LisaT — September 16, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  10. Lisa, looking forward to your insights on the JFS wives. They are remarkable ladies and deserve to be studied more!

    Comment by Nate R. — September 16, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  11. I’m stoked for that chapter, LisaT.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  12. Nate, thanks for posting this. As my first conference presentation, it was a great learning experience. I found myself sandwiched between two BYU professors dressed in typical suits and white shirts, while I had on a sweater, red pinstriped shirt, and chino’s. I made the observation, “Well, I guess we know who is not a church employee here.”

    Nate, your knowledge of the earlier JFS journals made a key contribution to solving the family mystery of when Edward Arthur actually was adopted, and I’ve been able to add to that for inclusion in the final version of my chapter.

    LisaT, I look forward to reading your chapter about the JFS wives, as well.

    Comment by kevinf — September 18, 2012 @ 3:17 pm


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