Israel A. Smith—A True Prophet

By Pamela Price

Israel A. Smith

The above picture of the Prophet Israel A. Smith is a photograph which was tinted for Vision by Artist Jan Willey.

Israel A. Smith was the fourth prophet of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Brother Israel, as he was affectionately called, was known as a kindly and spiritual man who guided the Church as its prophet-president from 1946 until 1958, when he was killed in an automobile accident. Taking the reins of the Church government at the age of seventy, he made an effort to maintain unity at a time when the fundamental-liberal rift was fermenting. He was a Restorationist himself, and strongly defended the Book of Mormon and the RLDS distinctives. He staunchly defended Joseph Smith’s innocence in regard to polygamy, and opposed the stance of the Utah Church. He published many articles in the Saints’ Herald which were doctrinally important, and which still provide timely counsel for the Church.

“Israel Alexander Smith, son of President Joseph Smith III and Bertha Madison Smith, was born February 2, 1876, at Plano, Illinois. At the age of five his family moved to Lamoni, Iowa.” He was baptized when ten years of age (Saints’ Herald, June 23, 1958, p.4).

After graduating from high school at Lamoni, he attended Graceland College for two years. He married Nina Marie Grenawalt on March 14, 1908. Nina “was graduated from the music and elocution departments of Graceland College. She then for a time continued her music and art work at Christian College, Columbia, Missouri, and took a course in domestic science in Kansas State College at Manhattan” (Saints’ Herald, November 13, 1950, p. 8).

Israel and Nina had two sons. Joseph Perrine was born September 7. 1912, at Lamoni; and Don Carlos was born March 4, 1916, in Independence, Missouri, where Israel and Nina had moved. In the same month of March, Israel moved his family into the house which had been the home of Israel’s father, Joseph Smith III, at 1214 West Short Street in Independence, (Ibid.). Here Israel and Nina lived the rest of their lives.

He was assistant or associate editor of the Saints’ Herald, 1908–1913. He served one term in the Iowa legislature, 1911–1913. In 1912 he was admitted to the Iowa bar, and in 1913 to the Missouri bar. Since January, 1929, he has been a member of the Independence Bar Association and Missouri Bar Association.

He was ordained a high priest April 11, 1915, at Lamoni, Iowa, by E. A. Smith and G. T. Griffiths. In 1920, he was ordained a bishop and second counselor to the General Church [presiding] bishop, serving until 1925. In October, 1922, he was ordained a member of the Standing High Council and served until 1942. (Saints’ Herald, June 23, 1958, p. 4)

Israel Protested Supreme Directional Control

When President Frederick M. Smith brought forth his doctrine of supreme directional control, his brother Israel protested. Israel always favored democracy. As part of his opposition to supreme directional control, he wrote an article for the Saints’ Herald of August 6, 1924, entitled, “Let the Facts Be Known.” It was also printed as a tract, along with the statement that it was “A Frank Statement by Bishop Israel A. Smith Setting Out the History of the Present Controversy and Telling Some Wholesome Truths.”

The Saints’ Herald for August 20, 1924, contained another article which was also printed later as a tract. This article was signed by Presiding Bishop Benjamin R. McGuire and both counselors, Bishops James F. Keir and Bishop Israel A. Smith. Also signing were Bishops A. V. Karlstrom and Roderick May, and Apostles John W. Rushton, and T. W. Williams.

The front cover of the tract stated:

Protest Against “Supreme Directional Control”

Despite reports to the contrary, the council of Presidency, Twelve, and Order of Bishops held last April was far from unanimous in adopting the doctrine of “Supreme Directional Control." A vigorous protest against this innovation, together with various interesting documents, is herewith published.

As a result of Israel’s opposition to his brother’s dictatorial ways, Israel was removed as bishop. The sad story of what happened is faintly alluded to in the introduction to Section 135 in the Doctrine and Covenants. It states:

A climax was reached in the General Conference of 1925. A conflict of views between the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric occurred. The Order of Bishops [which favored Frederick M.] presented a motion to the Conference recommending the honorable release from their positions of members of the Presiding Bishopric [who opposed him]. The General Conference by motion deferred action and approved an appeal to the Lord through the Prophet, in fasting and prayer. In response to the plea of the church the following revelation was received through President Frederick M. Smith. . . . “It is wisdom that the brethren of the present Presiding Bishopric be released from further responsibility in that office. (DC 135:1)

By presenting a “revelation” which released the fundamental members of the bishopric, President Frederick M. Smith and his policy of “supreme directional control” succeeded in winning the contest. The Church reeled as large numbers, some in the high quorums, left the Church, because they did not believe that God had given Section 135, which removed those from office who were staunchly defending democracy in the Church and were insisting upon following the laws as given in the Scriptures.

In spite of all the persecution, Israel Smith remained faithful to the Church. He believed that God had a work for him to do, and he wanted to be available when and if God called.

After Israel’s release from the bishopric, he and his family suffered great poverty. He returned to practicing law, but his business rarely prospered. Many poor Saints sought his services free of charge, while others refrained from engaging him as an attorney because of the stand he had taken against the liberal changes in the Church.

Israel’s poverty was no secret. There are several written references to his financial distress. On August 26, 1938, Israel wrote a letter to his cousin, Inez Smith Davis’s husband, Elder J. W. Davis (the original letter is owned by Richard and Pamela Price). In that letter Israel wrote of “the hard fight I am having for mere subsistence.” His sister Audentia wrote, "There were 'lean years' with Israel for quite a long time” (Saints’ Herald, March 28, 1960, p.22). This poverty took place during a period in which Israel was working for the Church, between 1930 and 1938.

He was secretary of the church from 1930 to 1940. In October of 1938 he was associated with President Frederick M. Smith as a counselor. . . . His ordination as a member of the Presidency came as an authorization of the 1940 Conference. . . .

President [Israel] Smith’s resolve upon coming into the Presidency in 1946 [as the prophet] was to bring about unity and close working relations between the quorums and departments of the church. At this time he publicly announced that he had been assured that he would be given ten years as Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church to bring about the purpose of God. (Saints' Herald, June 23, 1958, p.4)

A Mark of Greatness

One of Israel's marks of greatness was his kindness and concern for others.  When his father, Joseph Smith III and his stepmother, Ada, died, Israel and Nina cared for his younger brothers—Wallace, Richard, and Reginald as if they were their own sons.

"[He] Was for many years a companion and private secretary for his father, assuming much personal care of that honored parent during the four years of his blindness which preceded death, and arranging from dictated memory and diaries of early years, the manuscript for the personal memoirs of the late president" (Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Ancestry and Posterity of Joseph Smith and Emma Hale, p. 592). Israel could sympathize with his blind father because Israel himself was almost totally blind in one eye.

His sister, Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, wrote this account of the accident which caused his blindness.

While still quite young, he recognized that the trend of his life might be toward church work. He had some experiences that made this possibility quite plain to him, as the following incident reveals:

When Israel was a small boy, watching a threshing machine at work, a tiny piece of filing flew into his eyeball. It was extracted so unskillfully that his vision was permanently injured. Later, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, in the full exhilaration and enthusiasm that enveloped the young men of our nation, he went to Des Moines to enlist as [a] volunteer in the conflict. In the routine of processing these young men, Israel was sent to an examining physician.

After a keen, searching look into the youth’s face, the doctor said, “Close this eye; with the other read that sign across the street.”

“I had to admit,” wrote Israel to me, “that I couldn’t see the sign well enough to read it. . . . I . . . came on home. I am deeply hurt and disappointed. . . . Could it be, Audie," he wrote on, “that God has some work for me to do for him—perhaps in another kind of warfare—the struggle to save the souls of men instead of destroying their bodies?” (Saints’ Herald, March 28, 1960, page 21)

Israel did indeed do a work for the Lord in which he struggled to save the souls of men. He worked hard to serve the Master, and his accomplishments, if all were written, would fill books.

One of Israel’s deepest trials was the loss of his eldest son, Joseph Perrine Smith, who died of pneumonia while attending college. Audentia Anderson recorded the account of his death and of Israel’s great faith in God during that dark hour. She wrote:

Israel had to bear the heavy cross of bereavement, as have most of us. He was a man whose crowning interests were well-woven into his home life. He had proud dreams, no doubt, for his two young sons. But alas, while in the height of strong young manhood the oldest son, Joseph, was taken from earth life.

He had entered Missouri University in Columbia, but before the year was out he was stricken with flu-pneumonia, which proved fatal. His anxious parents were at his side continuously, those last few days, their handclasps reassuring the lad of their presence, their ears turned to hear his whispered words of love for them, and his gratitude for all their tender care throughout his short life.

Friends shared their vigils, and many were the fervent prayers offered for their comfort and solace. One of those told me of a touching incident that occurred just after the boy died. Israel asked this brother to assist him to arise and stand. He did so, and then they heard, from the stricken parent, a prayer such as has seldom been expressed. Lifting his face toward his God, and with the Holy Spirit filling the room, he prayed:

Our father, who art in Heaven; our son and brother has been taken from us. It is thy will, and to that will we bow. He was a son of the church, and therefore, by adoption, a son of God and joint heir with Jesus Christ, and, as such, we have the assurance that before thy judgment bar he will be dealt with justly. . . .

We have loved him dearly, and with loving and earnest hands have clung to him; but we realize that hands equally as earnest and loving have reached out to him from the other side of the river of death to lead him into the paradise of God. His was a bright and kindred spirit, and if Heaven is people with spirits such as his, there is where I want to be.

And now, as his earthly father and as a priest of God, I commit his soul back into the arms of the Maker who gave us this splendid, lovable, and loving son. I place his hand in Thine, 0 God. In the name of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, Amen. (Saints’ Herald, March 28, 1960, p.22)

(Vision 5 [Summer & Fall 1990]: 12-13, 36)