A Christmas MessageBy President Joseph F. Smith President of the Church Christmas Devotional – December, 1901
Among the most precious memories in the life of an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are the periods spent by him upon missions, laboring for the salvation of mankind. The nature of the service expected of such men, and in most cases faithfully performed by them, is the best explanation of the almost universal verdict rendered by our returned missionaries, that their experiences in the mission field, despite the hardships and persecutions they encounter, are among the happiest, if not the very happiest of their lives. It is easily deductible from the teachings of the Savior, that the secret of true happiness is found in unselfishness, in devoting one’s mind, heart and soul to the work of glorifying God by benefiting and saving mankind; and these teachings are amply confirmed by the experiences of the Elders of Israel in modern times.
I have chosen as the subject of the Christmas communication you have requested, those periods of my life when I have been absent from home, preaching the Gospel or otherwise subserving the sacred cause with which we are identified:
My first call to the mission field came when I was a youth of fifteen, and had been for about five and a half years a resident of Salt Lake Valley. My father and mother were both dead, and much of the care of the family they left devolved upon me, then a farm boy upon a piece of land about midway between Mill Creek and Parley’s canyon creek; land taken up by my widowed mother soon after her arrival in the mountains. I had worked hard during my boyhood, and consequently had little schooling, but I felt in my heart that God lived and that I had been called to engage in his work, and I cheerfully responded to the summons to serve him in a foreign land. My mission was to the Sandwich Islands, and I was gone nearly four years, leaving home in May 1854, and returning in February 1858. To say that I enjoyed my mission would be superfluous, after what I have stated in the beginning. I shall never cease to be grateful for that experience, hard though it was at times, and shall ever remember the kindness manifested towards me by many of the good native people of Hawaii.
When I reached home all Utah was aflame with the war spirit. Johnston’s army was in winter quarters, east of the Wasatch mountains, and the local militia, called out by Governor Brigham Young, who had placed the territory under martial law, were preparing to resist the impending invasion of Salt Lake Valley; the success of which meant to the inhabitants of this peaceful region—misrepresented to the general government, which had sent the troops to quell an imaginary Mormon uprising—a repetition of the bloody scenes through which our people had passed in Missouri and Illinois. It was determined that the progress of that army should be checked until a full and fair investigation could be had, and a peaceful adjustment of the difficulty secured. The militia were under express orders to “shed no blood,” save in individual self-defense, but to harass the troops by running off their stock, capturing their supply trains, and in every way impeding their advance.
I reported for duty to Governor Young the next morning after arriving home from the Islands, and was assigned to Colonel Callister’s cavalry command in Echo canyon. I sat up all night molding rifle bullets from a pig of lead I had brought with me from a “Mormon” smelter at Las Vegas, the ore for which had been carried by teams from the mountains about twenty miles distant. I then proceeded to the front. I was with Colonel Callister’s and Colonel H. P. Kimball’s commands up to the time of Governor Cumming’s entry into Salt Lake Valley, and was one of a dozen cavalrymen who followed the governor as a detail and to his destination. Subsequently I went with Porter Rockwell and a squad of ten or twelve rangers appointed to watch further movements of the government troops at Camp Scott. On this trip we met the peace commissioners, Messrs. Powell and McCullough, and received from them copies of President Buchanan’s “pardon to the Mormons.” We also met Mr. Morrell, the first non-Mormon appointee as postmaster of Salt Lake City, and were hospitably entertained by him. When Johnston’s army, under the terms of arbitration agreed upon by Governor Young and the peace commissioners, passed through Salt Lake City, I was among those who had been left to guard the all but deserted town. I afterwards joined my brothers and sisters at Provo, from which place, in July of that year, the war then being over, we returned with the general community to our homes. James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.4, p.19 – p.20 My next mission (taken after I became a married man), was to England, for which country I started in the spring of the year 1860, crossing the plains in company with two of the Twelve Apostles, Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich, who were going to Europe to preside. Elder Francis M. Lyman, now an Apostle presiding over the same mission, was also in the company, as was Walter M. Gibson, an Elder of the Church whom I next met as an apostate in the Sandwich Islands. He went with us as far as the States. A twenty-dollar gold piece, given me by President Brigham Young just before my departure, was all the money I had, and we who were bound for Liverpool were forced to borrow money in the East in order to reach our destination. I prize very highly my many pleasant reminiscences of the Saints in the European mission, where I labored successively as a traveling Elder in the Leeds conference, as president of the Sheffield conference, and as pastor of the Sheffield district, comprising the Sheffield, Leeds, Hull and Linconshire Conferences. Towards the latter part of my mission, while Apostle George Q. Cannon was presiding in that land, I accompanied him, by his invitation, on a tour through the Scandinavian conferences; a very pleasant trip, lasting about six weeks.
Sailing for America in the summer of 1863, the ship on which I was a passenger had two narrow escapes; one a barely averted collision with a sailing vessel in the midst of a dense fog one night in mid-ocean; the other while endeavoring to deliver the mail at St. Johns, Newfoundland, during a heavy fog. This time the ship, driven by the breakers, struck upon a rock, causing the utmost consternation until she succeeded in clearing herself and steaming into safe waters. Among the passengers bound for Utah was Sister Elizabeth H. Cannon, wife of President George Q. Cannon, whose infant child died during her journey across the plains.
I acted as chaplain of Captain John Woolley’s company, which followed later, but at Green River I joined a party, led by Lewis Robinson, which had come out to meet the train and take charge of a wagon-load of powder, which it was supposed Colonel Connor and the troops at Fort Douglas intended to confiscate. The powder was unkegged, sacked, loaded upon mules and conveyed by an unbroken route across the mountains and desert to Salt Lake City, where we arrived late in September. James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.4, p.20 – p.21 The next spring I was again on my way to a foreign land, having been given a second mission to the Sandwich Islands. This time I accompanied Apostles Ezra T. Benson and Lorenzo Snow, Elders William W. Cluff and Alma L. Smith, the special object of our errand being to put a stop to the fraudulent operations of the imposter, Walter M. Gibson, who was deceiving the credulous and simple-minded native members of the Church, not only in matters of doctrine, but with grotesquely false representations of his own power and authority. He had re-organized the Church according to his own fancies, ordained Twelve Apostles and other officers, selling them their ordinations, and imposing himself upon the people as a priestly and kingly ruler, to whom they must pay abject homage. We confronted him, charged him with his misdeeds, and labored faithfully to reclaim him, but he proved obdurate and impenitent and was therefore cut off from the Church. We then directed our energies towards reclaiming those whom he had misled, and in this work, under the blessing of God, we were very successful.
While upon this mission, and at its very outset, I witnessed the drowning of Apostle Lorenzo Snow, by the capsizing of a boat in the rough waters of Lahaina harbor, March 31, 1864. We had reached Honolulu in safety, and had proceeded thence to Lahaina, on the Schooner Nettie Merrill, from whose deck, I beheld the accident. The only reason I was not involved in it, as were all the other members of our party, was because, being familiar with the coast at that point, I had declined to enter the ship’s boat with the rest, or to disembark while the waves were running high. Brothers Cluff and Smith were equally averse to going in that boat, but yielded to Brother Benson’s persuasions. In due time I rejoined them on shore, and assisted to care for Brother Snow, who was resuscitated after much labor and difficulty, being rolled upon a barrel until all the water he had swallowed, was ejected, and his lungs then reinflated from the mouth of one of his companions; an ingenious process which suggested itself to the mind of Brother Cluff.
We set in order the affairs of the Hawaiian mission, of which, after Elder Gibson’s excommunication, I was given charge, with Elders Cluff and Smith as my assistants; the two Apostles returning to Utah. The three of us made a tour of all the islands, and meantime were joined by Elders Benjamin Cluff and John R. Young. We worked energetically against the imposture, and gradually won back those whom Gibson had deceived. We recommended by letter to President Young the gathering of all the Hawaiian Saints, to one place, where they might be better disciplined in religious duties and doctrines, as well as industrial pursuits. Our recommendation was adopted, and one of the spots proposed by us for this purpose, and the one we most favored, was afterwards chosen, and it remains to this day the headquarters of the mission; namely, the celebrated sugar plantation of Laie on the island of Oahu. The purchase of the property was made by Elders Francis A. Hammond and George Nebeker, whom I met at San Francisco while on my way home early in 1865. James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.4, p.21 – p.22 I will here remark that my first ordination in the Priesthood was to the office of Elder, in May, 1854, just prior to leaving upon my first mission. In March, 1858, I became a Seventy, and in October, 1859, a High Priest and a member of the High Council of the Salt Lake Stake of Zion. I was ordained an Apostle July 1, 1866, by President Brigham Young, assisted by the Twelve, and on the 8th of October, 1867, was set apart to take the place previously occupied by Amasa M. Lyman in the Council of the Apostles.
Between the spring of 1874 and the fall of 1877 I filled two more missions to Europe, where I was called to preside; being summoned home in 1875 on account of the death of President Geo. A. Smith, and in 1877 on account of the death of President Brigham Young. In the interim of these two missions I presided over the Davis Stake of Zion, and while in England on the latter occasion I visited with Apostle Orson Pratt various parts of Great Britain, for the purpose of selecting phonetic type for the publication of the Book of Mormon in the characters of the Deseret alphabet.
In 1878 I accompanied Brother Pratt to the states during which trip we called upon David Whitmer at Richmond, and upon William E. McLellin at Independence, Missouri; also touching at Far West, Plano and Kirtland. At New York I wrote an account of our journey for publication, and returned home in time to attend the October conference. James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.4, p.22 – p.23 Our interview with David Whitmer was exceedingly interesting. He bore to us his usual strong and undeviating testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon, and his connection therewith as one of the three witnesses to whom the angel of God showed the golden plates from which it was translated. Nothing could be more earnest, more sincere, than that aged man’s solemn affirmation that he saw the angel and heard his voice declaring that the characters upon those plates had been divinely translated. Mr. Whitmer showed to us what he claimed was the copy of the original—the copy furnished Mormon, but which in reality was a copy of the original—the copy furnished to the printer when the book was first published. Why I am positive that it was not the original, is because I have indisputable evidences that the original was deposited by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, from which it was taken, many years later, when the house was in a ruined state, by Emma Smith’s second husband, Major Bidamon, and by him given to parties who brought it to Utah. It is now in the possession of this Church. There is no truth in the story that we offered to David Whitmer money for the manuscript then in his possession, and now in the possession of his kindred. I merely suggested to him that the Church had better facilities for taking care of such things than he had and would gladly give it a place in the archives if he were willing to part with it. This, however, he declined to do, regarding the manuscript as a talisman upon which his safety depended.
As for William E. McLellin, his conduct, though kind, was very peculiar. He, it will be remembered, was one of the original Twelve Apostles, chosen in 1835, but excommunicated with David Whitmer and others for apostasy a few years later. He treated Brother Pratt and myself with every consideration, fairly gluing himself to our society as long as we remained at Independence, acting as our guide in visiting every point of interest in that historic town, loitering about our hotel while we took our meals, and waiting to rejoin us at every possible opportunity. He was full of reminiscences, but seemed to be all unsettled in his feelings and convictions, at one moment praising the Prophet Joseph to the skies, and at the next casting reflections upon him and the other Church leaders of his period. I never saw the sad effects of apostasy more plainly manifested. He stated that he was writing a book about his early connection with the Church, but I have never learned that he completed it. When we departed he accompanied us to the railroad station and stood gazing after us until our train disappeared in the distance. I corresponded with him afterwards as long as he lived.
My most recent foreign mission was performed under somewhat peculiar circumstances. It began in the midst of what is known as “the crusade” under the Edmunds law, enacted by Congress in March, 1882. Since the 10th of October, 1880, I had been second counselor in the First Presidency, and when the anti-polygamy crusade began I went with President John Taylor and other Church leaders, into exile, owing to the extreme bitterness that then prevailed. I remained “on the underground” from October 1, 1884, to September 10, 1891, and spent much of this time in the Sandwich Islands, returning just before the death of President Taylor, July 25, 1887. I attended him during his last moments, still in exile. My public ministries since that time have been an open book to the people.
Grateful to the Lord for my present good health, peace and prosperity, from the summit of my sixty-three years I look back upon a life in which joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, are intermingled, but with the former greatly predominating. No man that I know of has been more bounteously blessed by the Almighty than I have been; and no one, I believe, is more willing to acknowledge the Lord’s hand in His blessings, or is more anxious to merit them and to make a good, wise use of them. And with these sentiments in my heart and with feelings of kindness and good-will for the entire Church of God and for mankind everywhere, I wish all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.