In October 1946, Joseph F. Smith II, LDS Church patriarch, was released from his calling in LDS General Conference. He had not served for several months, the official reason being that he was ill, confined to his home in Centerville, Utah. What wasn’t known publicly was that Smith had been forbidden to give patriarchal blessings since May 1. In fact, after that day, his secretary never saw him again. As historian Gary James Bergera recounts in the winter 2012 issue of The Journal of Mormon History, Smith’s tenure stopped after this course of events: President George Albert Smith received communication from member Lorenzo Dow Browning, a Utah State Tax Commission appraiser and father of a Byram Dow Browning, 20. The father alleged an intimate relationship between Patriarch Smith and his son. He also mentioned that he had spoken with the patriarch recently, Later, Byram Dow Browning’s uncle, LeGrand Chandler, discussed the issue with the LDS prophet. That prompted a two and a half hour meeting between George Albert Smith and Joseph F. Smith II. Bergera writes, “… Joseph F., evidently devastated by the encounter, immediately ‘left for home’,” (George Albert Smith’s diary.)
We may never know if Joseph F. Smith II had a physical sexual relationship with Byram Browning, who attended the University of Utah, where Smith, a legitimate scholar and accomplished actor, taught speech and drama. There are accounts that claim Joseph F. Smith II had a history of homosexuality that extended as far back as the 1920s. The problem, as Bergera notes, is that many of the sources derive from the family of Eldred G. Smith, who had been passed over as Church patriarch by Heber G. Grant (yet later replaced him). According to research from historian D. Michael Quinn, members of the Smith family, including the Salt Lake City Police Department’s captain of the anti-vice squad, warned Church President Heber J. Grant of Joseph F. Smith II’s homosexual acts.
Bergera’s essay makes it pretty clear that the church patriarch was attracted to men. Prophet George Albert Smith noted in his diary on July 10, 1946, “Jos(eph) (F. Smith) Patriarch case considered. Bad situation. Am heartsick.” Apostle, and future prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, noted in his diary of the same day, “… matters of a most serious nature were presented by the Presidency which brought a shock to me and my breathren (sic), this was of a nature which I do not feel at liberty or capable of discussion. It is enough for me to say that what was presented was a shock to me of the greatest magnitude …” In September of that year, George Albert Smith met with both Byram Downing and patriarch Joseph F. Smith. Also there was LDS Apostle Albert E. Bowen. In his diary, George Albert Smith notes, “regret that the evidence is not satisfactory.”
From that account, Bergera writes, “Where questions may have lingered in the minds of some the testimony of Byram, who turned twenty-one in 1946, evidently put an end to speculation.” The next month Joseph F. Smith II “asked to be released” and was quietly dropped as a general authority.
Unlike Richard Lyman, an apostle who earlier in the 1940s had been excommunicated for adultery, the obvious question remains, why wasn’t Joseph F. Smith II excommunicated. Because details of the affair are scarce, we can only guess. Bergera offers several possible reasons, including that the relationship between Joseph F. Smith II and Browning was not overtly sexual, or that church leaders did not want a highly publicized excommunication so soon after the Lyman case. Another possibility from Bergera: “at this stage of evolving policy on matters involving sexual behavior in the Church, even if overt sexual conduct had occurred, Joseph F. Smith (II) may have felt that only heterosexual intercourse constituted adultery.”
That position is not as surprising as it may seem today. Bergera offers anecdotes, in the article and in footnotes, that relate incidents of homosexuality among male members that resulted in relatively light ecclesiastical punishments. In one 1951 case, allegations of sexual molestation of boys by an LDS missionary — who was facing criminal charges — were downplayed by his mission president, “who did not want to magnify the seriousness of his offense. All he did was put his hands on the boys where he should not have.”
I suspect that Joseph F. Smith II was not excommunicated because, at that May 1 meeting with George Albert Smith, he confessed whatever relationship he had, and must have demonstrated remorse in the ensuing months. His long “illness” may have been, as Bergera opines, a form of depression. I wonder if LDS leaders, reflecting the mores of that era, believed that Joseph F. Smith II, because of his same-sex attraction, was suffering from mental illness. If that’s the case, it’s likely the patriarch believed it as well. Again, this is only speculation.
However, church leaders were extremely helpful to the released patriarch and his wife, Ruth Pingree Smith. The family moved to Hawaii, where local church leaders were told that Joseph F. Smith II was not to have church callings or pray at church meetings, effectively disfellowshipping him unofficially. Nevertheless, as Bergera recounts, Joseph F. Smith II continued to receive a church salary long after he was released. The family eventually began to gain its economic footing. Joseph F. Smith II began teaching at the University of Hawaii, and rose to chairman of its speech department. Ruth Pingree Smith became an elementary schoolteacher. Smith remained on good terms with LDS Church President George Albert Smith, visiting with him in 1950. By the late 1950s, then LDS Church President David O. McKay was persuaded by supporters of Smith II to restore church callings and other activity to the former patriarch. By the end of 1958, he had been called to the Honolulu LDS stake high council.
Joseph F. Smith II continued to live in Hawaii. He died in 1964, in Utah, after having a heart attack while visiting for his daughter’s wedding. Speakers at his funeral, held at a church ward next to the University of Utah, included LDS apostles Harold B. Lee and Richard L. Evans. “Today,” writes Bergera, “the second floor lobby at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus is named the Joseph F. Smith Legacy Gallery.” I wonder how many active Mormons, merely reading the title, know that it’s not named after the LDS prophet. On display at the gallery, adds Bergera, “are the black leather shoes Smith wore in 1933 when he appeared on stage in “Death Takes a Holiday.”