BYU Church History Symposium: President Joseph F. Smith, March 2-3

Joseph F. Smith, nephew of the Prophet and son of the Patriarch, is often overlooked by academics and church members for his importance in the development of every aspect of church life and thought. In a few weeks, however, we have a symposium dedicated to remediate this situation. The same weekend as ApastaCon (March 1-2) brings us a conference on Joseph F. Smith hosted by the LDS Church History Library and BYU. Whereas the apostasy conference is Thursday and Friday at the Harold B. Lee Library, the JFS conference will be Friday afternoon at the Conference Center in SLC, and Saturday morning at the BYU Convention Center.

I invite all those available to attend. The announcement is here and the complete schedule of presenters is here. It looks like it will be a lot of fun, though splitting Friday between the conferences is completely unfair. Some of the presentations look to be very insightful. In full disclosure, I’ll be presenting Saturday morning and here is the introduction to my paper:

“The Last of the Old School”: Joseph F. Smith and Latter-day Saint Liturgy
When the Committee on Courses of Study for the Priesthood published a compilation of Joseph F. Smith’s teachings one year after his death, they appended the volume with several tributes and biographical sketches. Edward H. Anderson, Smith’s co-editor at the Improvement Era, penned the final piece, declaring that Smith was “the last of the old school of veteran leaders.” This statement certainly relates to many aspects of Smith’s life and service. In this paper, however, I will focus on how this pithy description from the first edition of Gospel Doctrine is particularly cogent to Smith’s role in the development and transmission of Mormon liturgy within the LDS Church.

During the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saint liturgy existed in an uncodified and dynamic state. New rituals emerged and the Saints adapted older rituals to address unmet needs. Generally transmitted through folk channels of instruction, Mormons learned ritual performance and worship patterns through proximate example and from oral texts. There were no church handbooks or manuals from which to learn, no written formulae. Consequently as church members looked for authoritative performance, they looked to those individuals closest to Joseph Smith or his inner circle as authoritative examples. And while these authoritative examples were often members of the high quorums of the Church, they were not always so.

As a member of the Smith family with a childhood in Nauvoo, and due to his extensive experience associating in the highest quorums of the church, Joseph F. Smith occupied an important and unparalleled position during the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a living receptacle of liturgical history, when no written liturgical histories or instructions existed. And as leaders modernized Church bureaucracy and liturgy, he wielded tremendous influence over the patterns, forms and rituals of church life.

After discussing several examples which highlight the role of this liturgical authority within nineteenth century Mormonism, I will review Joseph F. Smith’s interactions with three rituals systems: female healing, baptism for health, and baby blessing. Though limited in scope, this paper will show how Smith held on to practices that were confusing to younger church leaders who lacked his historical memory. In other cases Smith was also innovative, changing worship and ritual, and leaving an imprint on the church to this day. However the cases described in this paper elucidate the evolution in Mormon liturgy by focusing on Joseph F. Smith’s deeply conservative approach to aspects of it.


  1. Fascinating! Alas, Utah is just too far away for me to attend. Will your paper (or any of the others) be available online following the conference?

  2. Janell, many of the papers will be published in a single volume by the BYU RSC. This is similar to other symposiums in the past. Whether mine will be included is up in the air still.

  3. Great stuff–any chance you would post your paper here for those who can’t make it?

  4. Thanks Bryan. It will be published somewhere eventually, but it is a bit much for a blog post.

  5. I’d like to give a shout out to Joseph R. Stuart, presenting on Saturday morning… he’s the first undergrad to EVER present at a Church History Symposium!

  6. J, looking forward to listening to your presentation. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I will be presenting in the next session after yours about Joseph F. Smith’s correspondence to his adopted son, Edward Arthur Smith. Looking at your introduction here, I think I should have subtitled mine “Chuch History Lite.” However, mine involves backyard bonfires, rowdy mining camps, and frozen wheat crops. I’m just glad we’re not competing for an audience. [Smiley emoticon omitted in respect to Steve Evans highly sensitive nature]

  7. Matt s.: Sorry, I think I was the first to do that back in ’09, but who’s keeping track ;)

  8. kevinf, as long as it is delicious, I don’t care if it lite or not. I love me some bonfires.

  9. I used to be read everything J.F. McConkie wrote, listen to everything he said, and believe what he taught. I have since come to see him as intellectually ignorant, and a terrible writer, though still a very good person. It will be interesting to listen to him again with my current thought.

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