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Smith, Joseph, III
(November 6, 1832–December 10, 1914)

–Prophet/President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—was born in Kirtland, Ohio, the 6th of 11 children of Emma Hale Smith and Joseph Smith II, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In 1860 Joseph Smith III was ordained the Prophet/President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a position he retained until his death. (The prefix "Reorganized" was added to the original name of the church to distinguish it from others of the same name. In 2001 the name was changed to Community of Christ.)

    The family was forced to flee from Kirtland to Far West, Missouri, and then, in 1839, to Nauvoo, Illinois. Political, economic, and religious tensions led to the assassination of Joseph Smith II on June 27, 1844. The population of Nauvoo, which had exploded to more than 10,000 by 1845, diminished a year later to about 500 persons as the Saints scattered.

    Emma Smith remained in Nauvoo with five of her children and in 1847 married Lewis Bidamon. Joseph Smith III developed self-control and an aversion to injustice from prejudice shown toward him as a boy. He was twice elected justice of the peace, supported by new German immigrants to Nauvoo. From 1850 to 1860 Smith clerked, farmed, and studied law.

    Emma Smith Bidamon distanced herself from all the Latter Day Saint splinter groups and did not press Latter Day Saint doctrine or dreams of leadership on her children. When visited in 1857 by representatives of the recently formed "Reorganization," Joseph Smith III was not prepared for or amenable to their insistent assertion that God wanted him to lead them. After two years of study, prayer, and spiritual experiences, Smith felt called to the leadership role.

    The church Smith inherited was composed primarily of members of the original church who were dissatisfied with leaders such as James Strang (Wisconsin), Sidney Rigdon (Pennsylvania), Lyman Wight (Texas), William Smith (Illinois), Charles Thompson (Iowa), Alpheus Cutler (Iowa), and Brigham Young (Utah) who arose after 1844. The Reorganized group held that polygamy was evil and that the new leader would come from "the lineage" of Joseph Smith II. In other matters, these "Josephites," as they were often called, varied widely in beliefs and practices.

    Smith's most difficult task was to create unity within the group. The Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which had led the movement from 1853 to 1860, reluctantly, slowly, shared power, challenging the new prophet from time to time. Smith used his considerable authority as Prophet sparingly, but his writing as editor of the True Latter Day Saints' Herald was lucid and sensible, and he had growing rapport with the members. Smith was approachable, natural in demeanor, patient, and tactful, and encouraged open discussion on controversial subjects. Once the church conference decided an issue, however, Smith demanded that members of the priesthood publicly support it.

    Joseph Smith III did not introduce new doctrines and did not often reject the old ones. Instead, he subtly guided how they were to be interpreted. Issues arose over baptism for the dead, preexistence, tithing, plurality of gods, and when the church should "gather to Zion."Smith vehemently contended that his father was not responsible for polygamy. He outlived his opponents, and by 1895 his interpretation had become entrenched in the church.

    Smith helped establish Lamoni, Iowa, as the church's headquarters in 1881. He supported the Herald Publishing Company, Graceland College, Saints' Home for the Aged, and Children's Home in Lamoni. He traveled widely in the United States, Canada, and England. Returning missionaries and visitors from Tahiti, Australia, Denmark, and Scandinavia gave Lamoni a cosmopolitan air unusual in a small midwestern town. Smith's large home, Liberty Hall, was open to everyone.

    Chastened by the church's experiences in Nauvoo in the 1840s, Smith tried to keep religion separate from politics in the Lamoni setting. Locally, he supported the temperance movement. On the national scene, he urged Congress to reject statehood for a polygamous Utah. In 1903 he visited Washington, D.C., to help unseat Senator Reed Smoot. These, to him, were questions of morality, not politics.

    Joseph Smith III married three times: Emmaline Griswold (1857-1869), Bertha Madison (1869-1896), and Ada Clark (1898- 1914), and had 17 children. In 1906 he moved to Independence, Missouri, where he died. Three of his sons, Frederick Madison, Israel, and William Wallace, consecutively became presidents of the church he had guided for 54 years.
Sources The Smith papers are in the Temple Archives of the Community of Christ Church, Independence, Missouri. His lively Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1979) and Roger Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (1988), are helpful introductions.
Contributor: Alma R. Blair