Joseph Smith III
Joseph Smith III (1832-1914) was the eldest surviving son of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Joseph Smith III served as Prophet-President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (known today as the "Community of Christ") from 1860 until his semi-retirement in 1906, the first person to hold that position following a formal reorganization of the church that took place several years after his father's death. Smith presided over the church for a total of fifty-four years, until his own death in 1914. Smith's ideas and nature, including his opposition to polygamy, set much of the tone for the church's development over the next century.
Joseph Smith III was born in Kirtland, Ohio, on November 6, 1832, to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Emma Hale Smith. He moved with his parents to Far West, Missouri, in 1838, where his father was arrested partially as a result of the events in the so-called "Mormon War," a battle between Mormons and a group of residents from northwestern Missouri. Young Joseph was able to stay overnight with his father in prison on several occasions. It was later alleged by fellow prisoner and church apostle Lyman Wight that during one of these visits, Joseph Jr. laid his hands upon young Joseph's head and said, "You are my successor when I depart." Smith apparently named Young Joseph his successor on at least one other occasion, which is said to have happened at a special council meeting of church officials, held in the second floor of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo. Joseph's father reportedly seated him in a chair so that prominent church leader Newel K. Whitney could anoint his head with oil. At this point, the elder Smith pronounced a special blessing upon his son's head that suggested young Joseph would succeed him as church president, so long as he lived righteously.
While his father was still imprisoned in 1839, young Joseph left Missouri with his mother and siblings and moved first to Quincy, Illinois, and then to the new Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois. The elder Smith escaped custody and rejoined the family later that year. At Nauvoo, the Latter Day Saints created a militia known as the Nauvoo Legion and soon afterward, it is said that 500 of the town's boys created their own junior version of the militia. Young Joseph became general of the boys' militia, upholding their motto of "our fathers we respect, our mothers we'll protect." As the young Joseph was growing up in Nauvoo, his father lead many of the municipal offices, in addition to his roles as church leader. At the same time, evidence indicates that Joseph Smith Jr. was in support of polygamy, if not in practice, then at least in principle. At this time, a handful of men in the Church were called upon to marry plurally, specifically to care for those women whose husbands had died, or who had no husband. There were many instances when Smith and other plural husbands would not have had sexual relations at all with their plural wives, as the marriages were only intended as a legal means of allowing the women to "lay claim" on their new husbands for sustenance. It is generally thought that Smith himself had multiple wives, though it is unclear with how many of the women Smith actually had sexual relations; there are allegations that Smith had at least one child born to a plural wife, but this remains unproven. These allegations, along with unverified charges of rioting and treason, led to the elder Smith's arrest and subsequent assassination in 1844. For the eleven year old Joseph III, his father's death was no doubt an experience that had a significant effect on his later philosophy and actions.
In the wake of Joseph Smith's death, the Latter Day Saints movement was left in temporary disarray without a leader. This was due to the fact that Smith had established no conclusive means by which to choose his successor. Although many Latter Day Saints believed that young Joseph should indeed succeed his father, at age eleven the boy was clearly too young to assume the role of a leader. A succession crisis ensued that resulted in Brigham Young, elder apostle of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, being ordained as prophet of the Church, since the larger body of believers held that group to be their principle governing body.
Not all Mormons approved of Young's leadership, however, including Joseph Smith's widow. While she did recount to her family that her husband had indeed taught that the President of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles was to be the next natural prophet of the Church, she was discontented with his insistence upon plural marriage. In addition, Young and Emma Smith disagreed over the settlement of Joseph Smith's estate, including the manuscript of Smith's revision of the King James Version of the Bible. In the wake of these contentions, much distrust developed between the two, and Mrs. Smith made little protest when others tried to take over the role of president of the Church. As a result, many of Young's followers developed deep antipathy for the Smith family, with some going so far as to make attempts to forcibly banish the Smith family from Nauvoo.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the bulk of the Latter Day Saints either aligned themselves with Brigham Young and emigrated to Utah (a stream that would become the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) or they remained in the Midwest and looked to James J. Strang as church president. Joseph's uncle, William Smith, whose relationship with Young was already very strained, chose to recognize Strang as the leader. Young and the majority of the Latter Day Saints departed Nauvoo in 1846, leaving the Smith family alone in a city that was virtually empty. At this point, Strang gave indications that he believed that a son of Joseph Smith, Jr. would one day lead the church and made overtures to the Smith family. Emma and her sons, however, remained aloof. Many Midwestern Latter Day Saints were still adamantly opposed to plural marriage, and when Strang began to openly practice the doctrine in 1849, several key leaders including Jason W. Briggs and Zenas H. Gurley broke away from the Strangite church.
Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints in the Midwest began to call for the need to establish a "New Organization" of the church, with many insisting that Joseph Smith III should be at its head. On November 18, 1851, Briggs claimed to receive a divine revelation that elucidated the future of the church, and his followers promptly distributed disseminations of this account. The document insisted that the next leader of the church would come from the line of Joseph Smith. During the winter of 1852, a group of Latter-day Saints followers in Wisconsin and Illinois lead by Briggs began to etch out the plans for what they considered to be the genuine continuation Smith's original church, many of which were put into effect at the church's first official conference on June 12-13, 1852. Elders repeatedly visited Smith and asked him to assume his father's position as prophet-president of the church, but he repeatedly replied that he would only assume the church presidency if he were inspired by God to do so. In the meantime, he took up the study and eventually the practice of law. In 1856, he married Emmeline Griswold and the couple moved into his parent's first residence in Nauvoo. Finally, in 1860, Smith said that he had received the inspiration for which he had waited, and at an conference in Amboy, Illinois on April 6, 1860, he was named Prophet-President of what was soon to be known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) for legal purposes.
Many of the followers of the Reorganized church were, in fact, dissidents from what they felt were the excesses of a theocracy established by Smith's father, and which they also felt were continued under Brigham Young in Utah. Thus, from the very start of his presidency, Smith attempted to steer a middle course. Rather than outwardly deny the later teachings of Smith's father, such as baptism for the dead, the Book of Abraham and the concepts of "eternal progression" and the "multiplicity of gods," Smith taught that these doctrines should simply be deemphasized, instead. Smith also resisted calls from his followers to announce a new gathering place or else to hastily establish "Zion" in Independence, Missouri.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Smith began to rebuild the structure of the church, establishing a new First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles, seven quorums of the Seventy, and a Presiding Bishopric. Zenas H. Gurley, Sr. became President of the Council of Twelve. Furthermore, Smith presented a revelation which called William Marks, former Stake President of the church's presiding central stake under Smith's father, to be First Counselor in the reorganized First Presidency. After Marks' death, Smith called W.W. Blair and his brother David Hyrum Smith to be his counselors in the First Presidency.
In 1866, Smith moved from Nauvoo to Plano, Illinois, where the church's printing house had been established. He personally took over the editorship of the Saint's Herald, and Plano became the headquarters of the church. Meanwhile, Latter Day Saints adhering to the Reorganization established a colony in Lamoni, Iowa, where they attempted to practice the "Law of Consecration" or "Order of Enoch," which dictated that the property of all church members would be shared in an egalitarian fashion. In 1881, Smith decided to move to Lamoni which became the new headquarters of the church. Although the practice of the Order of Enoch proved a failure, the town of Lamoni continued to grow. The church established a college in the town which is now known as Graceland University.
During Joseph Smith III's term as prophet president, the RLDS began to distinguish itself from the so-called "Utah Mormonism" of Brigham Young. Smith III was of course influenced by his mother's vehement opposition to polygamy, and repudiated the idea that it had ever been considered doctrinal by his father, insisting instead that it had originated with Brigham Young. He served many missions to the West, however, where he met with and interviewed associates (and wives) of his father who attempted to present him with information to the contrary. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Smith eventually concluded that he was not completely sure of his father's innocence. and, regardless of his father's position, he continued to be an ardent opponent of the practice throughout his life. By the end of the nineteenth century, the RLDS had also rejected polygamy and numerous other LDS doctrines under Smith III's leadership, including the plurality of the Godhead and the exclusion of black people from the priesthood, all in an effort to distance themselves from the larger sect.
In Joseph Smith III's final years, members of his church began to move to Independence, Missouri, the place which Smith's father had designated as the location of the "City of Zion." Latter Day Saints had wanted to return to this theologically significant ground since their expulsion in 1839. In 1906, at the age of 73, Smith moved to Independence and entered a state of semi-retirement. At this point, his eldest son, Frederick Madison Smith, remained in Lamoni and took over active leadership of the church. On December 10, 1914, Smith suffered a heart seizure in his home and died at the age of 82. He had been president of the church for more than fifty years and was mourned by thousands. His life's work still lives on in the RLDS, renamed the Community of Christ in 2001, a movement which currently boasts approximately 200, 000 members worldwide.
- Lyman Wight, Letter to "The Northern Islander," July, 1855; reprinted in Saints Advocate, Vol. 7 (September 1884), p. 478.
- Roger D. Launius, Joseph III: Pragmatic Prophet (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 6.
- Jeffrey Nichols, Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 13.
- Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, "Community of Christ" (2007).
- Launius, 36.
- Launius, 277.
- Carina Lord Wilson and Andrew M. Shields, "Church Membership Report," in 2007 World Conference Monday Bulletin, March 26, 2007, p.269-276.
- Howard, Richard P. "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church)." In Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1992. ISBN 0-02-879602-0
- Howard, Richard P. The Church Through the Years. Independence, MO: Herald House, 1992.
- Launius, Roger D. Joseph III: Pragmatic Prophet. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. ISBN 0-252-06515-8
- Nichols, Jeffrey. Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1847-1918. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. ISBN 025202768X
- Smith Davis, Inez. The Story of the Church: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and of Its Legal Successor, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Independence, MO: Herald House: 1981. ISBN 0-8309-0188-4
- Wilson, Carina Lord and Andrew M. Shields, "Church Membership Report." In World Conference Monday Bulletin (March 26, 2007): p. 269-276.
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