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Joseph Smith III
Joseph Smith III (November 6, 1832–December 10, 1914) was the eldest surviving son of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Joseph Smith III succeeded his father as Prophet-President of a "New Organization" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For fifty-four years until his death, Smith presided over this church which came to be known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and is now known as the Community of Christ. Smith's ideas and nature set much of the tone for the church's development.
Joseph Smith III was born in Kirtland, Ohio on November 6, 1832 to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Emma Hale Smith. At the age of five, he moved with his parents to Far West, Missouri in 1838, where his father was arrested as a result of the events in the 1838 Mormon War. Young Joseph was able to stay over night with his father in prison on several occasions. It was later reported by fellow prisoner and church Apostle Lyman Wight that during one of these visits, Joseph Jr. layed his hands upon young Joseph's head and said, "You are my successor when I depart." While his father was still imprisoned in 1839, young Joseph left Missouri with his mother and siblings and moved first to Quincy, Illinois and later to the new settlement of Nauvoo. The elder Smith escaped custody later that year and rejoined the family.
At Nauvoo, the Latter Day Saints created a militia known as the Nauvoo Legion and soon afterword, 500 of the town's boys created their own junior version of the militia. Young Joseph became general of the boy's militia whose motto was, "our fathers we respect, our mothers we'll protect."
According to later reminiscences, young Joseph was blessed by his father at a special council meeting of church officials, held in the second floor of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo. By some accounts, participants also included Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, Willard Richards, Newel K. Whitney , Reynolds Cahoon, Alpheus Cutler, Ebenezer Robinson, George J. Adams, W.W. Phelps, and John M. Bernhisel. Joseph's father reportedly seated him in a chair and Newel K. Whitney annointed the his head with oil. Then elder Smith pronounced a special blessing upon his son's head that suggested the young Joseph would succeed him as church president.
As the young Joseph was growing up in Nauvoo, his father was leader of many of the municipal offices, in addition to his roles as church leader. At the same time, his father was secretly practicing plural marriage. The excesses of theocracy (combining church and state) and plural marriage, led to the elder Smith's arrest and assassination in 1844. For the 11 year old Joseph III, his father's death was no doubt a lesson that affected his later philosophy and actions.
Although many Latter Day Saints believed that young Joseph should succeed his father, at age 11 the boy was clearly too young. A succession crisis ensued which resulted in Brigham Young taking control of the church in Nauvoo. Relations between Young and the Smith family were strained and Joseph's uncle William and his grandmother Lucy Mack Smith recognized James J. Strang as church president. Young and the majority of the Latter Day Saints departed Nauvoo in 1846, leaving the Smith family in a mostly empty city. Smith's mother Emma attempted to make a living renting out rooms in the family home. In 1847, Emma married a second husband named Lewis Bidamon.
Smith began to study and eventually practice law. In 1856 he married Emmeline Griswold and the couple moved into the old Smith blockhouse (Smith's parent's first residence in Nauvoo).
The Reorganization of the Church
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the bulk of the Latter Day Saints either aligned themselves with Brigham Young and emigrated to Utah or they remained in the Midwest and looked to James J. Strang as church president. Both Young and Strang gave indications that they believed that a son of Joseph Smith, Jr. would one day lead the church and both made overtures to the Smith family. Emma and her sons, however, remained aloof from either of the two chief rivals. Many Midwestern Latter Day Saints were adamantly opposed to plural marriage and when Strang began to openly practice the doctrine in 1849, several key leaders including Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H. Gurley, Sr. broke with his church. Later, when Strang was mortally wounded by assassins, he refused to name a successor, and when he died he left his church leaderless.
The Midwestern or Prairie Saints began to call for the need to establish a "New Organization" of the church and many likewise believed that Joseph Smith III should be at its head. Elders repeatedly visited Smith and asked him to take up his father's mantle, but his reply was that he would only assume the church presidency if he were inspired by God to do so. Finally in 1860, Smith said that he had received this inspiration and at a conference in Amboy, Illinois on April 6, 1860, he was sustained as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (While retaining use of this original name, this church for legal purposes later was incorporated as the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" and today is known as the Community of Christ.)
President of the Church
As church president, Smith's biographer has named him a "Pragmatic Prophet." Many of the followers of the Reorganized church were, in fact, dissidents from the excesses of theocracy established by Smith's father and brought to fruition under Brigham Young in Utah. From the start, Smith attempted to steer a middle course. Rather than deny the later innovations of the Nauvoo period 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 not be emphasized. Smith also resisted calls from his followers to announce a new gathering place or to quickly "redeem" and build up "Zion" (Independence, Missouri).
In the 1860s and 1870s, Smith began to rebuild the structure of the church, establishing a new First Presidency, Council of Twelve Apostles, seven quorums of the Seventy, and a Presiding Bishopric. Zenos H. Gurley, Sr. became President fo the Council of Twelve. 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." 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.
The Redemption of Zion
In his final years, members of the church began to move to Independence, Missouri, which Smith's father had designated as the "centerplace" of the "City of Zion." Latter Day Saints had wanted to return to this theologically important ground since their expulsion in 1833. In 1906, at the age of 73, Smith moved to Independence and entered a state of semi-retirement. His eldest son, Frederick Madison Smith, remained in Lamoni and took over active leadership of the church. Finally on December 10, 1914, at the age of 82, Smith suffered a heart seizure in his home and passed away. He had been president of the church for more than fifty years and he was admired and mourned by thousands.
Relations with Utah Latter-day Saints and Plural Marriage
Joseph Smith III was an ardent opponent of the practice of plural marriage throughout his life. For most of his career, Smith denied that his father had been involved in the practice and insisted 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 evidence to the contrary. In the end, in the face of overwhelming evidence, Smith concluded that he was "not positive nor sure that [his father] was innocent" and that if, indeed, the elder Smith had been involved, it was still a false practice.
For many years, leaders of the Community of Christ continued to deny Joseph Smith, Jr.'s involvement with plural marriage, but beginning in the 1970s, the official church historian concluded that the evidence showed otherwise. Today, the official historian not only agrees the elder Smith initiated plural marriage, he terms it an "abuse of priesthood authority."
- Roger D. Launius, Joseph III: Pragmatic Prophet, University of Illinois Press: 1995, ISBN 0252015142
- Richard P. Howard, The Church Through the Years, Herald House: 1992, ISBN 0830906290
| Preceded by:|
Joseph Smith, Jr.
| President of the Community of Christ |
| Succeeded by:|
Frederick M. Smith
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