As the son of the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, Joseph Smith III played a pivotal role in the success of the second largest denomination within the movement. As president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from 1860 to 1914, Smith helped to mold a viable church tradition and doctrine that allowed a small group of Restoration believers to grow into an organization that today claims over 250,000 in fifty countries around the world. Here are some facts about the life and ministry of the man that Reorganized Church members came to know fondly as Young Joseph.
Born on 6 November 1832, Joseph Smith III grew up during the formative years of the Latter Day Saint movement. By the time he was eight years old, Smith had seen the church grow in numbers, establish a base of operations in a city created out of swampland, and found himself to be a favored child among the Latter Day Saints living at the church’s headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois. He had also witnessed his father being tarred and feathered, and arrested for various charges. On one notable occasion in the winter of 1838-39, Smith visited his father in a jail in Liberty, Missouri. Witnesses later recalled that Joseph Smith, Jr. had declared that his son would lead the church someday as his successor.
While frontier life was difficult, young Joseph enjoyed relatively stable times during the years in Nauvoo. These idyllic times were cut short with the murder of Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1844, and the fragmentation of the church. Emma Smith, wife of the slain leader and the mother of young Joseph, elected to not go west with those Saints who aligned with Brigham Young, and paid only scant attention to other men who claimed the right of leadership to the church. Instead, she chose to remain in Nauvoo and opened her home as a boarding house. In 1847, Emma remarried, providing her children with a stepfather, Major Lewis Bidamon.
Representatives of the various factions of the old Latter Day Saint church occasionally visited Nauvoo. Emma received them with a hot meal and a room to sleep in for the night. During those, years, Smith heard a lot of anecdotal information about his father, and the church he had founded. While offers to receive the Smiths into full fellowship came from several different Latter Day Saint groups, the family chose to remain independent for most of the 1850s. Joseph Smith III flatly told them he had received no leading from God to join with them, and that until he did, he would not join with any Latter Day Saint group.
In 1859, Joseph Smith III determined to pray about what role, if any, he was to have in the church that his father started. According to his later memoirs, he was told to join with the group that was being referred to as the New Organization. Smith contacted the group and made plans to join them at their upcoming General Conference, which was scheduled to begin on 6 April 1860. His mother determined to travel with her son to the Conference.
At the Amboy Conference, Joseph Smith III shared his spiritual experience with the Saints assembled and told them that if they would have him, he was with them. The Conference voted to accept Smith and his mother into full membership, based on their baptisms in the pre-1844 church. At the same conference, Joseph Smith III was ordained and set apart to the office of Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to the New Organization of the Church.
Young Joseph faced many issues in his early years as president of what would become known as the Reorganized Church. The group was gathering in members from a number of other Latter Day Saint bodies, often bringing some unique beliefs they had picked up since 1844. Smith exercised patience as the young church set to the task of defining what constituted true Latter Day Saint belief, as well as seeing to the judicial, legislative, and administrative structure of the Church. Being of a democratic turn of mind, Smith revived the model used in the early years of the movement, making sure every congregation was represented at General Church conferences.
During the first ten years of his presidency, the RLDS Church grew from a small band of three hundred to over ten thousand members. Many of these were former Saints who had followed one factional leader or another after the death of his father. Joseph Smith III's pragmatic approach allowed for the slow move back to Independence, Missouri, considered to be the Center Place of Zion among Latter Day Saints. Over the fifty-fours years he served as president of the RLDS Church, he sought to provide counsel on how to prevent a recurrence of the succession issue of 1844.
One area where Joseph Smith III had only partial success was in clearing his father’s name of the practice of polygamy. He not only prepared for his own successor, but also drafted counsel that could be used in the event that the First Presidency became vacant for any reason. The RLDS Church — renamed the Community of Christ in 2001 — was able to utilize those guidelines when the incumbent president chose to resign in 2005. Joseph Smith III passed away on 10 December 1914