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President Joseph F. Smith lost two daughters and one of his plural wives to death in 1915, causing him to study and ponder further about the spirit world. His talk at the April 1916 general conference is considered one of the greatest sermons ever given to the Church. Among other things, he said:
I have a feeling in my heart that I stand in the presence not only of the Father and of the Son, but in the presence of those whom God commissioned, raised up, and inspired to lay the foundations of the work in which we are engaged. . . . I would not like to say one thing, or express a thought that would grieve the heart of Joseph, or of Brigham, or of John, or of Wilford, or Lorenzo, or any of their faithful associates in the ministry.
Sometimes the Lord expands our vision from this point of view and this side of the veil, that we feel and seem to realize that we can look beyond the thin veil which separates us from that other sphere. If we can see by the enlightening influence of the Spirit of God and through the words that have been spoken by the holy prophets of God, beyond the veil that separates us from the spirit world, surely those who have passed beyond, can see more clearly through the veil back here to us than it is possible for us to see them from our sphere of action. I believe we move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. . . .
I thank God for the feeling that I possess and enjoy and for the realization that I have, that I stand, not only in the presence of Almighty God, my Maker and Father, but in the presence of His Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Savior of the world; and I stand in the presence of Peter and James, (and perhaps the eyes of John are also upon us and we know it not); and that I stand also in the presence of Joseph and Hyrum and Brigham and John, and those who have been valiant in the testimony of Jesus Christ and faithful to their mission in the world, who have gone before. . . .
I hope you will forgive me for my emotion. You would have peculiar emotions, would you not, if you felt that you stood in the presence of your Father, in the very presence of Almighty God, in the very presence of the Son of God and of holy angels? . . . I feel it to the very depths of my soul this moment.1
In January 1918, Hyrum M. Smith, President Smith’s 49-year-old Apostle son, died of appendicitis (and probably also the primitive medicine and surgery of that day). Again, President Smith knew crushing grief. His own health had also begun to decline. As he opened his address at the April 1918 conference, he noted, “It is an unusual thing for me to attempt to make any apology for myself, but I am in a condition of health just at this time which may prevent me from taking so active a part at this session of our conference as I have usually taken.”2 He did not speak as much that conference as usual. At the October conference, held shortly before his death, he said, “As most of you, I suppose, are aware, I have been undergoing a siege of very serious illness for the last five months.” Then he declared: “I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart. I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith, and of determination; and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.”3
President Smith’s son, Joseph Fielding Smith, notifies us in his biography that President Smith had received several spiritual manifestations preceding the conference, and one of them was a revelation on the redemption of the dead, known today as section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This is one of the revelations that President Smith told the conference that he had received, but we are not informed of what the others were. After the conference, in which President Smith again participated less than usual, he dictated the revelation to his son Joseph Fielding, who faithfully recorded it. Later he read it to the Quorum of the Twelve where it was accepted by them as the word and will of the Lord.
President Smith died of pneumonia in November of 1918. Thereafter, at President Heber J. Grant’s direction, much of the June 1919 general conference was devoted to eulogizing him. In his own address, Elder Melvin J. Ballard said, “When the president was taken away, in the imaginations [yearnings] of my own mind by the enlightenment of the Spirit of God that came to me, I saw President Joseph F. Smith received on the other side. Tongue cannot tell the joy that was in Hyrum Smith's heart when he received his beloved son, Joseph F. Smith.”4 Some months after the general conference, Elder Orson F. Whitney dreamed of his beloved associate and friend: “Thursday or Friday night I dreamed of President Joseph F. Smith. He was very kind and genial, and put his arms around me, asking me to bless him. I awoke feeling happy.”5
Likewise, Elder Bruce R. McConkie saw President Joseph F. Smith at the funeral of his son, President Joseph Fielding Smith.6 Elder McConkie, a grandson-in-law of President Smith, informed his family that President Joseph F. Smith served as president of “some missionary organization that has worldwide jurisdiction” in the spirit world.
Elder Ballard continued, enlarging our vision of what awaits the faithful and obedient in the spirit world: “When [we] go to the other side, we shall find standing in places of honor, representing the Lord Jesus Christ, men like President Joseph F. Smith, who will be given greater authority and greater power than they ever had upon the earth. He is not shorn of anything because he is gone from this world. The place and position which belongs to him is one of greater presidency, greater influence and power, and authority than he has ever had in the earth; for over there are countless billions of our Father's children who are receiving this gospel and they shall come under the administration of the elders of the Church who have been faithful; and presidency and power and authority shall belong to President Smith forever and ever, among the redeemed and the sanctified in the eternal world.”7
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