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November 7, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Church History
The Youngest Missionary
by James B. Allen

When President Thomas S. Monson announced the lowering of missionary ages to eighteen for men and nineteen for women, I began to wonder who was the youngest missionary the Church has ever called. So far as I can tell now, it was Joseph F. Smith, who was called at age 15.1 [Note: His full name was Joseph Fielding Smith but he is generally referred to as Joseph F., to clearly distinguish him from his son, Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. Both became Presidents of the Church.]

Young Joseph F. Smith

Born November 13, 1838, Joseph F. was the first child of Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith. Hyrum, older brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, had been taken into custody and incarcerated at Liberty, Missouri only a few days before the baby was born. After he and his brother Joseph escaped, they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, until the two were brutally martyred in Carthage on June 27, 1844. Joseph F. was thus left fatherless at age six.

When Mary Fielding married Hyrum Smith, he was the widowed father of five children. Mary willingly took responsibility for the children and, in addition to Joseph, gave birth to a daughter before the Latter-day Saints were forced out of Nauvoo.

The Saints began to leave Nauvoo early in 1846, but Mary and her seven children did not have the means to do so immediately. The oldest boy, Joseph, was able to cross the Mississippi earlier than the rest of the family, but Mary and the others remained until September. Then, just a day or so before the Battle of Nauvoo, when their lives were in serious jeopardy, she loaded her little flock and whatever provisions they could put together onto a flatboat and crossed the river.

As they camped on the Iowa side, they could hear the battle rage in Nauvoo and painfully realized that some of their remaining friends were being murdered. This became a permanent memory for young Joseph F., who was not yet eight years old.

Mary was fortunate enough to be able to exchange some Nauvoo property for a few wagons, oxen, horses, cows, and other necessities, and soon headed out across Iowa for Winter Quarters. Young Joseph drove one of the teams of oxen.

The tremendous faith Joseph demonstrated in later years was, at least in part, the result of the indelible example set by his mother. As an adult he frequently reminded his children of this with a particularly remarkable story.

During their stay at Winter Quarters, he accompanied his mother and her brother Joseph to St. Joseph, Missouri, to obtain various supplies. They took with them two wagons and two yoke of oxen. On the return trip, they awoke one morning to find their best yoke of oxen missing. Young Joseph and his uncle spent the entire morning searching everywhere they could think of, but to no avail.

Joseph was the first to return to their wagons, and as he did so he saw his mother on her knees. He stopped until she arose, and then saw a wonderful, reassuring smile on her face. When her brother returned and announced that there was no hope of finding the oxen, Mary simply told him to eat the breakfast she had prepared and then took off toward the river.

The two Josephs watched in astonishment and then saw her wave at them. When they joined her they found the oxen tied to a clump of willows. For young Joseph, finding the oxen was a miracle, the result of his mother’s faith. Without these oxen and the provisions they pulled in the wagons, the family could not have made it across the plains to the Great Basin.

The Smith family arrived in Salt Lake City in 1848. In 1852, however, Mary died, leaving Joseph an orphan at age thirteen. Two years later he was called on a mission.

Meanwhile, Joseph was a hardworking young man. His main occupation was herding the family’s sheep and cattle, but he also worked in the fields at harvest time. Also, at least for a while, he attended school.

Calling such a young man on a mission was unusual, if not unheard of. As one writer once noted:

It was exceptional that one so young should have been trusted to undertake this important calling, yet his experiences had been such that for some time he had been doing the work of a man. He was tall and strongly built, unafraid and able to take care of himself in any situation. He had developed in advance of his years. He had a complete and whole-hearted faith in the religion of his parents. The authorities of the Church were well assured that here was a boy who could be depended upon to do his duty.2

At the same time, though he could not be called a rowdy, young Joseph had a temper and was not afraid to display it when he thought a wrong had been done. Ironically, it may have been this helped get him called on a mission so young.

At one point he had an altercation with his school teacher. For some reason the teacher decided to punish Joseph’s younger sister, Martha. When he saw the teacher pull out a strap and tell Martha to hold out her hand, he was incensed. As he told a friend some years later, “I just spoke up loudly and said ‘Don’t whip her with that!’ and he came at me and was going to whip me; but instead of whipping me, I licked him, good and plenty.”3

One result was that Joseph became a school dropout. Another may have been his mission call. His father’s cousin, George A. Smith, was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. There is a likelihood that at this point George A. took matters in hand and, confidant of the boy’s dedication to the gospel and real spiritual potential, arranged for the call. At any rate, just four months after his fifteenth birthday Joseph F. Smith’s name was read out in the April 1854 General Conference of the Church, being called as a missionary to Hawaii.4

In stark contrast to today’s missionary calls, that was the way missionaries were called in those days, often totally unexpected by them. No bishop’s interview, no physical exams, no questions about financial means, no formal letters from the President of the Church, no language training — only the expectation that the missionaries would devote their lives faithfully to building the Kingdom no matter where they were sent.

Also in contrast to what today’s eighteen-year-old missionaries can expect was nearly everything else about young Joseph’s mission, including the fact that he and the others would travel without purse or scrip. As a missionary Joseph had no money of his own and had to rely on people he met, or on obtaining some kind of employment, for his sustenance.

On April 24, 1854, Joseph was ordained to the office of elder by George A. Smith. He also received his endowment that day, in special rooms dedicated for that purpose on the upper floor of the Council House in Salt Lake City.5 He was set apart for his mission by Elder Parley P. Pratt, who promised him that “by the gift of God as well as by study,” he would learn the Hawaiian language.

Joseph was one of twenty-one missionaries called to the Pacific islands. They included two of his cousins, Silas Smith and Silas S. Smith. Most of the group left Salt Lake City on May 27, 1854, headed for southern California. They were joined by the last member, Silas S. Smith, in Parowan.

On the way they were forced to share their scant food with a band of near-starved Indians, in order to avoid trouble. They reached the Latter-day Saint settlement of San Bernardino, California, on June 9. There they sold most of the animals they had brought with them and also obtained some temporary employment in order to raise enough to help make their way to San Francisco. They arrived there in mid-July and quickly set about trying to find employment in order to purchase more clothing as well as pay for their passage to Hawaii.

By early September, Joseph, his two cousins, and six other missionaries had raised enough money to book passage to Hawaii on a clipper ship, the Vaquero, which left San Francisco harbor September 8, 1854. The other missionaries left at various later times.

The voyage was hardly the most pleasant that could be imagined, for at least two reasons. For one, there was no cabin space for the nine Elders, so they were required to bunk with the crew, most of whom were rowdy, uncouth, and not the type of company they liked to keep. In addition, it was a somewhat rough voyage, due to heavy wind and storms.

The Vaquero sailed into Honolulu harbor on September 27 and was met by many Hawaiian natives, some in their canoes and others swimming out to the ship. It was a delightful welcome, but as Joseph listened to their conversations he felt a bit of consternation, wondering how in the world he could ever understand, let alone speak, that native language.

Just as the voyage from San Francisco was not so pleasant, neither were the early days of Joseph’s mission in Hawaii. He was assigned to work on the islands known as Molokai and Maui. However, as he left Honolulu he became seriously ill and remained so for the first month. Fortunately for him, Elder Francis A Hammond and his wife Mary J. Hammond were serving as missionaries on Maui, and Sister Hammond tenderly nursed him back to health. He was then assigned to the Kula district of Maui.

Perhaps Joseph’s greatest immediate challenge was to learn the language, but he was also anxious to learn about the people and to become acquainted with their customs. It disturbed him that some of the missionaries did put much effort into either learning the language or getting to know the people. They demonstrated an unfortunate racial prejudice in their feeling that the Hawaiian natives were not worth the effort needed to convert them.

Some felt so strongly (or, were they so lazy?) that they soon left their mission.6 Others, even though they stayed in the islands, were turned off by the native food and avoided it as much as possible.

However, much like George Q. Cannon (who had previously served faithfully in Hawaii and helped translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian), Joseph was different. He soon acquired a taste, even a relish, for poi as well as other native foods.

More importantly, he fell in love with the Hawaiian people, whom he found loving, kind, and always willing to share even the last morsel of whatever food they had. It humbled him to realize that the natives reserved the best they had for the Elders and did everything they possibly could, no matter how inconvenient, to make the missionaries comfortable.

Contrary to the unfortunate assumptions of the prejudiced missionaries, the native converts were fully capable of understanding gospel principles and thoroughly devoted to living by those principles.

It took Joseph only three months to learn the language well enough to do missionary work wherever he was called to serve. Perhaps one of the first words he learned was Iosepa — the Hawaiian word for Joseph. In any case, a hundred days after his arrival in Honolulu he was able to conduct a meeting, open it with prayer, and give a talk in the native tongue. As Parley P. Pratt had promised, his fluency increased rapidly. Meanwhile, his faith in what he was doing was expressed in a letter to George A. Smith dated October 20, 1854:

I know that the work in which I am engaged is the work of the living and true God, and I am ready to bear my testimony of the same, at any time, or at any place, or in whatsoever circumstances I may be placed; and hope and pray that I ever may prove faithful in serving the Lord, my God. I am happy to say that I am ready to go through thick and thin for this cause in which I am engaged; and truly hope and pray that I may prove faithful to the end.7

A little over three months after arriving on Maui, Joseph was assigned to accompany a native elder by the name of Pake on a missionary tour of the island. Pake had been converted a few years earlier by George Q. Cannon. The two had only one horse but they rode the circuit together, covering about 125 miles. They preached the gospel, baptized and confirmed people, blessed their children, ate their food, and stayed in their homes. By that time Joseph, still under sixteen years of age, could preach the gospel in Hawaiian with great fluency. He made this circuit frequently during his stay on Maui.

Not everything on his circuit rides was pleasant for the young missionary. Sometimes he was called on to settle grievances among the native Saints, which was a challenging task indeed. However, he performed his task well and soon gained the respect of the natives as well as other missionaries for the soundness of his judgment as well as his deep spiritual strength.

Joseph was blessed with many gifts of the Spirit, including the gifts of healing and of casting out of evil spirits. As he wrote later: “Of the many gifts of the Spirit which were manifest through my administration, next to my acquirement of the language, the most prominent was perhaps the gift of healing, and by the power of God, the casting out of evil spirits which frequently occurred.”

On one occasion he was staying with a native family at Wailuku, on Maui. Suddenly one night, the wife of the man of the house was seized with evil spirits. Overcome with fear as he watched his wife’s terrible contortions, the husband could do nothing but crouch trembling in a corner.

Joseph, too, was seized with fear but, he later reported, as he silently prayed the fear suddenly left and Spirit of the Lord came upon him great power. Standing on his feet and facing the woman he said: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I rebuke you.” The woman immediately fell limp to the floor, whereupon her husband, thinking she was dead, began to wail. However, the fifteen-year-old missionary rebuked the husband and quieted him. The woman soon regained her strength. Through this and many other experiences, Joseph F. Smith learned much more about the power of faith and the strength of the Spirit.

During a conference at Wailuku, April 6-8, 1855, Joseph was given a new native missionary companion, Lalawaia. After the conference he toured the island again, with his new companion. The two were so successful in their preaching that they stirred up bitter opposition from various ministers.

Falsehoods were rampant, and the missionaries were constantly required to refute them. However, even though some Church members fell away the work went on and the Church continued to grow.

One of Joseph’s various responsibilities was to work with the native Elders in raising money to obtain a boat for the mission. Eventually the funds collected enabled them to build a sloop out of timbers from the mountains of Oahu. Intend for use as transportation between the islands, it was named Lanai, after the island that had been designated as a gathering place for the Hawaiian Saints. It was used for a while, but it soon became clear that it was a liability rather than an asset because of the expenses involved in maintaining it. The sloop was sold in June, 1856.

In July 1855, Joseph F. Smith, still sixteen years old, was assigned to preside over the Church on Maui, succeeding Francis A. Hammond. That same month a group of Saints arrived from Australia. They were on their way to the United States, but their ship was leaking so badly that they had to stop for repairs. When they found that it could not be repaired they had to remain in Hawaii.

At that point two of them, Frederick William Hurst and his brother Charles Clement Hurst, joined the missionary group and served as missionaries until they were able to leave the islands seven months later. Born May 18, 1839, Charles was slightly younger than Joseph F. Smith. Technically, therefore, he may have been the youngest missionary in the Church at that time, though Joseph was still the youngest at the time he was called on his mission.8

Unfortunately, young Charles Clement Hurst inadvertently caused a problem for the missionaries by accidentally setting on fire the storehouse where Joseph and the others stored all their belongings. Joseph’s trunk and everything in it were lost, including his clothes, a copy of the first European edition of The Book of Mormon, a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and, most tragic of all, the journals he had faithfully kept. There was only one exception. In one of the books he had placed his Elder’s certificate. Miraculously in was preserved intact — scorched around the edges but not one word obliterated.

All this created what could be thought of as a humorous situation, though it was hardly humorous at the time. Joseph and his missionary companion were left with only one presentable suit between them. For a time, then, until another suit could be obtained, one missionary remained in bed while the other wore the suit and went to a meeting, then roles were reversed when the next meeting came along.

In April,1856. Joseph was transferred to the big island, Hawaii, and assigned to preside over the Hilo conference. He was transferred to preside over the Kohala conference, also on Hawaii, six months later. After another six months he was assigned to preside over the Church on the island of Molokai.

On Molokai, Joseph and his companion, Elder Thomas A Dowell, faced some special problems. Many members of the Church had succumbed to false reports about the Church and had become inactive. In addition, many Saints were hungry, for food on Molokai was scarce.

As they tried to make contact with the Saints in all the various branches, the two Elders traveled from one end of the island to the other (about thirty miles), on foot, with no food or water, in the hot sun. Not in as good a shape physically as Joseph, Elder Dowell found the trip especially difficult. However, they became acquainted with a Mr. R. W. Myers, a German living on the island, who hosted them in his home for several days, became a friend, and furnished them a horse with which to continue their visits. They were able to reactivate some of the wavering members but, unfortunately, they also found it necessary to disfellowship a few others.

While serving on Molokai, Joseph again became desperately ill, this time with a fever that lasted for nearly three months. He was taken under the wing of a young Hawaiian couple, who took him into their home and did all they possibly could to help him recover. He always felt especially indebted to the wife, Ma Manuhii, who nursed him back to health as tenderly as if he were her own son.

There is a famous and tender story about what happened many years later when, as President of the Church, Joseph F. Smith returned to Hawaii. It was related by Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church, who accompanied him on the trip. As told by Bishop Nibley:

President Joseph F. Smith’s Hawaiian mama.

One touching little incident I recall which occurred on our first trip to the Sandwich Islands. As we landed at the wharf in Honolulu, the native Saints were out in great numbers with their wreaths or Leis, beautiful flowers of every variety and hue. We were loaded with them, he, of course, more than anyone else. The noted Hawaiian band was playing welcome, as it often does to incoming steamship companies.

But on this occasion the band had been instructed by the Mayor to go up to the “Mormon” meetinghouse and there play selections during the festivities which the natives had arranged for. It was a beautiful sight to see the deepseated love, the even tearful affection, that these people had for him.

In the midst of it all I noticed a poor, old blind woman tottering under the weight of about ninety years, being led in. She had a few choice bananas in her hand. It was her all — her offering. She was calling, “Iosepa, Iosepa!” Instantly, when he saw her, he ran to her and clasped her in his arms, hugged her, and kissed her over and over again, patting her on the head saying, "Mama, Mama, my dear old Mama!"

And with tears streaming down his cheeks he turned to me and said, "Charley, she nursed me when I was a boy, sick and without anyone to care for me. She took me in and was a mother to me!"

O, it was touching — it was pathetic. It was beautiful to see the great, noble soul in loving, tender remembrance of kindness extended to him, more than fifty years before; and the poor old soul who had brought her loving offering — a few bananas — it was all she had — to put into the hand of her loved Iosepa.9

A plaque honoring the reunion of President Joseph F. Smith and his Hawaiian “mama.”

After his recovery, Joseph went for a while to Lanai and then to a general mission conference in Honolulu. There he received word that all the missionaries who had been sent to the islands in 1854 were being recalled. The missionaries quickly sought employment in order to earn enough to pay their passage home, and on October 6, 1857 Joseph and six others sailed from Honolulu for San Francisco. Their meager funds did not allow them to pay for a cabin on the ship Yankee, so they made the passage in the hold.

Conditions there were even worse than those they endured in 1854, as they sailed the other way. Sanitary facilities in the hold, for example, were practically non-existent, and that problem added to the fact that the hold carried livestock made the smell almost completely unbearable. No doubt Joseph and the others spent as much time as they could on deck.

When they arrived in San Francisco, the returning missionaries found extremely cold weather, and they desperately needed warm clothing. Two of them, Joseph and Elder Edward Partridge, were especially needful but Elder George Q. Cannon, who was presiding over the Church in California, provided them each with an overcoat and a blanket. Then they started home, though the route was a bit circuitous and the trip was slow. They went south to San Bernardino, where Joseph had to stop and find employment in order to buy clothing enough to keep him comfortable the rest of the way. Then he found work driving a team to Salt Lake City.

But this was a period of time when anti-Mormon feelings were running particularly high and at one point a group of drunken men rode into camp on horseback cursing and threatening to kill any Mormon in their way. Joseph F. was the first to meet them, having gone a little way from the camp to gather wood.

At first he thought he should seek safety in the woods, or by running, but then he thought, “Why should I run from these fellows?” Accordingly, with his arms full of wood, he marched to the campfire.

At that point one of the roughnecks yelled out that it was his duty to exterminate every Mormon he met and, in an angry voice, yelled at Joseph, “Are you a Mormon?” Without hesitation, and with no sign of fear (though he later said that he fully expected to be shot), Joseph looked him in the eye and said “Yes, sirre; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.” Astonished and taken aback, the man suddenly grasped Joseph’s hand and said “Well, you are the _____ _____ pleasantest man I ever met! Shake, young fellow, I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions.” With that he and the others rode off.

Joseph F. arrived in Salt Lake City on February 24, 1858, nearly four years since leaving. Thus ended the mission of the youngest full-time missionary ever called by the Church.


1. Unless otherwise noted, the following account is largely based on Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938).

2. Preston Nibley, Presidents of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 189-90.

3. Ibid., 189.

4. For a general study of the history of the Church in Hawaii, see Lanier Britsch, Moramona: The Mormons in Hawaii (Laie, Hawaii: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1989).

5. Before temples were completed in Utah, the sacred temple endowment ceremony was administered in other buildings. In Salt Lake City the upper floor of the Council House was used from 1851 to 1855. After that a building called the Endowment House was used until 1889. Lamar C. Berrett, “Endowment Houses,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992) 2:456.

6. Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, 170-71.

7. Ibid., 178.

8. For the interesting story of Frederick and Charles Hurst, see “The Diary of Frederick William Hurst,” online at or

9.As quoted in Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, 185.

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