Same-sex relationship sent LDS Church patriarch into exile

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.”

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40 Responses to Same-sex relationship sent LDS Church patriarch into exile

  1. @UtahMormonDemoGuy says:

    Very interesting. If I am not mistaken, this is the father of Hyrum Smith, of Franklin Day Planner fame.

  2. Doug says:

    Yes, you are correct.

  3. Tom says:

    Doug,

    Great stuff, however I do worry that the black helicopters from Church security may pay you a visit some dark night!

    Like Howard, you may know way too much!

  4. ScottH says:

    I had the obligation as a young adult to have some involvement with a church disciplinary council in the case of a young man that had been sexually involved with another young man. It was clear that some present felt that this type of transgression was not particularly serious.

    The presiding authority asked those present what they would have thought if the other participant had been female. Every single person said that it would be fornication and that it would require a strong response. When the presiding authority then instructed that this case was also considered fornication, it was like a new doctrine to many participants.

    It seems that attitudes both in the LDS Church and among the broader public regarding same-sex attraction and intimacy have evolved significantly since the days of the Smith incident. In both cases, its severity is seen more on par with heterosexual intimacy. This renders it less taboo to the broader public, but as serious as adultery for the church.

  5. Clair B says:

    Nice writeup Doug.

  6. Scott Cruse says:

    Are you sure you don’t mean Joseph F. Smith III?

  7. EW says:

    Why are you bringing this up, exactly? Like Scott mentioned, fornication or adultery in any form are treated the same way in Church disciplinary councils. Excommunication is for the unrepentant. The separation of church and state guarantee that the state cannot interfere with Church policies and vice versa.

    People in the audience, there are better places to understand Mormons than miscellaneous articles with varying degrees of accuracy. lds.org, mormon.org, and mormonnewsroom.org are great resources for fact-checking or for your own enlightenment regarding the Mormons.
    Thanks for listening.
    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      “Better places” meaning nice and whitewashed.

      It’s what happened, EW. It’s called “truth.” You have a problem with “truth”?

    • Marshall says:

      People in the audience, there are better places to understand Mormons than miscellaneous articles with varying degrees of accuracy and sanitation found on lds.org, mormon.org, and mormonnewsroom.org. This blog is a great example. Mormons are a diverse group of people with all sorts of problems and solutions. Enjoy.

    • Dwight Hurst says:

      Re: to EW
      “Why are you bringing this up, exactly? Like Scott mentioned, fornication or adultery in any form are treated the same way in Church disciplinary councils. Excommunication is for the unrepentant. The separation of church and state guarantee that the state cannot interfere with Church policies and vice versa.

      People in the audience, there are better places to understand Mormons than miscellaneous articles with varying degrees of accuracy. lds.org, mormon.org, and mormonnewsroom.org are great resources for fact-checking or for your own enlightenment regarding the Mormons.
      Thanks for listening.”

      Why do YOU feel it neccessarry to plug your own website and coem down on an interesting piece of LDS history? I do tire of people who decide that they are the appointed experts of what is and is not acceptable parts of our history to ever be discussed anywhere at anytime.
      When a part of our history makes us uncomfortable, we are free to look away if we so choose, although I feel that that moment of discomfort is a great time to look inward and see why I am so bothered by it. If you choose to look away, please do not be so bold as to try to choose for me.

      Dwight

  8. Erick says:

    “People in the audience, there are better places to understand Mormons than miscellaneous articles with varying degrees of accuracy.”

    In fact, as Exhibit A you present another miscellaneous article with, perhaps, varying degrees of accuracy?

  9. SaraKeiser says:

    Interesting article but for what purpose?

  10. Doug Gibson says:

    SaraKeiser, I’m interested in and fascinated with my church’s history, so I write about it. I wrote this last week:

    http://blogs.standard.net/the-political-surf/2012/04/09/80-plus-years-ago-book-by-davis-author-served-as-gift-to-missionaries-from-lds-prophet/

    History is what it is. Why ignore this and include that? The answers are almost as interesting.

  11. awsocks says:

    Doug,

    Thanks for the interesting article. I don’t understand why so many Mormons are afraid of information. I find that reading your articles strengthens my faith. I love how honest you are, and I feel like I can trust the info you provide.

  12. Dwight Rogers says:

    The headline reads: “Same-sex relationship sent LDS Church patriarch into exile.”

    But in the body of the article we read: “We may never know if Joseph F. Smith II had a physical sexual relationship with Byram Browning.”

    Clearly, the headline is misleading. The author doesn’t know if the headline is true or not. Church discipline courts are private and, as such, the author does not know what really happened. This appears, then, to be an attempt to discredit the Church based on hearsay evidence.

    • D. Michael Martindale says:

      Never mind that it was written by a faithful, active member of the church.

      Hot news flash, everybody: reporting what happened is not the same thing as attacking.

      Second hot news flash: headlines are often exaggerated, since their very purpose is to attract attention to the story.

      • Dan Maloy says:

        @ D. Michael Martindale –

        Never mind that everything Dwight Rogers said is true, specifically that the article title says that this high-ranking church official DID have a homosexual relationship and yet the body of the text says “we may never know” if there was in fact a homosexual relationship or not.

        You pounce on “truth” when it fits your agenda of attacking the LDS church but yet clearly ignore “truth” when it does not support your agenda of attacking the LDS church. That, D. Michael, is pathetic.

        Another valid point to bring up is that homosexual relationship or not, the article clearly states that even the head of the LDS church maintained a very helpful/supportive relationship with the “exiled” Joseph F. Smith II. WHY DO YOU NOT MENTION THE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE SHOWN TOWARDS THIS MAN BY THE VERY HIGHEST OF LDS LEADERS EVEN AFTER HIS SIN WAS MADE KNOWN????

        Nor do you, or others who also have disdain in their heart towards the LDS church mention that Joseph F. Smith II fully regained the faith and confidence of LDS church leaders by repenting of his sin, as evidenced by later serving on a stake High Council.

        Don’t want to talk about that either, do you?

        Folks, read this if you choose, but, yes, lds(dot)org or mormon(dot)org are EXCELLENT places to learn about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I ENCOURAGE you to go to the highest source of all: God. (James 1:5-6)

        • Erick says:

          I think it sort of depends on what it is that we are trying to learn about the Church. The Church’s official website(s) are obviously the go-to places to learn what the Church’s official and current position is on various issues. If you want to know what it teaches, and it’s basic current principles are, then that’s the place.

          If you want more of a detailed history, and critical review or Mormonism, then you would need to look elsewhere. The Church’s official websites function more like a marketing prospectus. They offer great information about the current products features and benefits, as well as it’s outstanding history. But naturally they want you to buy, so we shouldn’t expect these sites to provide us with a fair consideration of the products limitations and defects. Of course, the Church would prefer all research to be done within it’s control. What vendor wouldn’t love to control 100% of the product information.

  13. Matt says:

    Interesting article, but it’s hard to tell how much is fact and how much is just the author’s imagination/opinion.

  14. Granter says:

    History is a lie agreed upon.
    -Napoleon
    We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
    -G.B.Shaw
    Every generation creates its own history.
    -R.G, Collingwood
    History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
    -Mark Twain (my favorite)

  15. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    The more unusual forms of sexual activity are just not part of the experience of a lot of Mormons, and that includes both actual homosexual intercourse and sexual abuse of childreb. People who cannot conceive what those actions involve have a difficult time taking them seriously. And in particular they find it difficult to appreciate the compulsive nature of sexual behaviors and the difficulty in changing it no matter how sincere the expressed desire when not actually engaged in such actions. When serving on a high council, I was the only participant in a disciplinary hearing with experience in investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse and incest, who could make it clear to the rest that child molesters are inherently deceptive and deny both their acts and their seriousness, and tjat a man who confessed to molesting one step daughter was likely to be attempting the same acts with the other stepdaughter.

    • Dwight Hurst says:

      As an LDS psychotherapist, I have to take the opportunity to insert the opinion that homosexual feelings and actions, and the experience of being sexually abused or exposed to sexualized things in childhood are probably not as uncommon in the LDS community as we may often think they are. Neither for that matter are masturbation and other sexualized behaviors, among all of our populations, not just yougn men.

      However, I do agree with the underlying point you are making, which is that as a people who endeavor to live the law of chastity, we do get uncomfortable with some parts of our history more than others, as well as some parts of our current experience.

      Dwight

  16. Pingback: 18 April 2012 | MormonVoices

  17. Granter says:

    “People who cannot conceive what those actions involve have a difficult time taking them seriously.”

    Congratulations on being a person with the astounding ability to be ABLE to conceive what those actions involve . . . I think. How did you go about acquiring this dubious skill, anyway?

  18. Granter says:

    What? Serving on a high council? That’s a pretty cynical thing to say! (kidding)
    However, I also have experience in investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse and can happily report that I can conceive as well as the next man or woman of what those actions involve — no better or worse. But, I claim no special powers over peers’ judgments because of my “experience” in prosecution and investigation. In court, any claim to special “insight and experience” bias would definitely excuse me from setting on a jury.

  19. Tina says:

    I find myself so sad that the Smith family, (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) have to re-live this incident and have it aired in public. They are innocent victims of the morbid curiosity of others who should remember that we all have stories that we would not wish posted online for all to see.

  20. Steve says:

    This is my feeling as well. This is not history, it’s evasion of privacy. May we have a complete essay of Dougs sins available to us? How about the sins of his parents or children? What other failings of his loved ones would he like to share with all the world? This is a story of personal human suffering. Why rebroadcast it here as psuedo-history.

    • Dwight Hurst says:

      I disagree, I appreciate hearing stories of humans struggling with human things. Makes me feel better about being human nowadays. Sometimes the tall granite sculpteres of the pioneer forefathers can be hard to measure up to. I like the reminders that they were people too.

  21. Dwight Hurst says:

    Misleading title made under the “if it bleeds it leads,” rule of journalism? Maybe

    I disagree about the intention, I think the church leaders at the time come off looking pretty good and compassionate in this article, especially considering the historical context.

    Dwight

  22. Karen says:

    Truth continues to come forth! Thank you very much for this research which counters the image that the leaders are perfect. We are writing a book entitled, “The Great and Most Abominable: The Prophetic Cleansing of the Mormon Church” which is not to hurt the church, but to aid in its repentance of: 1) “abominable” polygamy which has never been of God even by the Prophets aka “men of old” (Jacob 2 and 3) and was the cause of the allowed destruction of the Nephites. Joseph Smith repented from polygamy and 2) Masonry before he died as verified by D. Michael Quin, Origins of Power, pg 144-155. Masonry stems from Satan’s required vow of secrecy with a penalty of death or “suffer your life to be taken” as disclosed in Moses 5:29. Also, 3) women and Blacks held the full priesthood during the “pure” years of the church prior to Joseph Smith falling due to his “own will and carnal desires” (D&C 3:1-11). (7 good years 7 bad years type and shadow of 2 Ne 3 with “much restoration” required after the restoration and subsequent apostasy we are in today). And 4) Worship of Kings with an illusion of the perfection of our leaders as you demonstrated today. Joseph was commanded to be an Apostle only and to only that which God commanded him to do. He opted to be a King instead which fulfills the prophecy of Daniel about the Kings. Finally, 5) the alteration of the Book of Mormon–and the First Vision where only the Lord appeared not multiple Gods. This alteration with over 3,000 changes at the 1837 printing changed the identity of God contrary to Alma 11:23-40, Ether 3:14 and Mosiah 15:1-5.
    “Thanks for listening”
    Recall the whirlwind that hit downtown SLC and then read D&C 112, D&C 64, D&C 124: “cursed…for our follies and abominations” and then read the only dated quatrain of Nostradamus about the SLC Whirlwind…
    Truth is marching and the divine internet fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy about secrets being shouted from the roof tops.

    • Mark Sparkman says:

      This has been a good, serious conversation, until now. You post a promo of yet another compilation of superstitions here and think you have added to it?

      • Karen says:

        Mark Sparkman! What an ignorant and uninspired comment on your part. I added heavenly events, scriptures and many great truths to ponder for all Truth Seekers.

        For you to call truth, which refutes blind-obedient traditions of corrupt men posing as men of God, superstitious seems childish and not child-like on your part. Shame on you for not honoring truth in order to protect fallible “abominable” traditions (D&C 124:38).

        Christ taught us all to be Truth Seekers as in “Seek and ye shall find” meaning that the learned men or the Pharisees and Sadducee do not have the answers.

        • Mark Sparkman says:

          I protect no one. I am not a member of the organization under discussion. I object to crass mercenaries who promote their wares in the name of “discussion.” I did not see your response before, and I have no idea who you are. I really have no dog in this fight — and I do not debate with people who don’t identify themselves anyway.

  23. David Ewell says:

    I have not read the Bergera article, but I have read the book, Lost Legacy, by Irene Bates and E. Gary Smith, that gives an account of the office of church patriarch from Joseph Smith, Sr., down to the designation of Eldred G. Smith as emeritus (in effect, abolishing the office of church patriarch). To the best of my recollection, Bates and Smith do not mention the allegations regarding Byram Downing but only refer to reports from the Salt Lake police that Joseph F. Smith II was frequently seen loitering around restrooms in city parks. Whether patriarch Smith confessed to acts or only desires, his offenses appeared to church leaders as sufficiently grievous to warrant the immediate closing of his office and his eventual release and exile–if you will.

    And if years later church authorities were kindly and forgiving toward the former patriarch, this may have been because some of them were close relatives. In addition, the fifties and early sixties were an era of good feeling when even an enthusiastic and cheerful killer like John D. Lee could be re-baptized and have his priesthood blessings restored.

    There is an aspect to this story that the Bates & Smith book makes clear that the Bergera article might not: namely, that the appointment of JSF II as church patriarch came after an interim of 10 years during which President Grant and members of the Twelve gave prolonged and repeated attention to the question of who should fill the office of church patriarch. For 10 years the highest ranking leaders of the LDS church prayed and pondered before settling on a man who had homosexual proclivities. What, if anything, this implies about the reliability of the inspiration of church leaders, I will leave others to decide.

    But there is one conclusion that the history of the office of church patriarch renders unavoidable: it is not rational to confer power or authority on the basis of heredity because children are often nothing like their parents. Some families have higher batting averages than others, but no one bats a thousand for very long. Look at Adam and Eve, right off the bat one son murders another in cold blood. Grim.

    One question not raised heretofore so far as I can tell, is whether any doubts were expressed about the validity of the numerous patriarchal blessings pronounced by JSF II. Apparently not. And if not, is it fair to conclude that a person with homosexual desires can also be a genuinely spiritual person, able to receive authentic inspiration? Perplexities abound.

    As to the propriety of retelling some of the sadder, more regrettable episodes in church history, let me make a couple of points. First, giving a prettified picture of the Mormon past can lead to unrealistic expectations and eventual disappointment, even bitterness. It’s just not true that all the pioneers went to church all the time. Not hardly. I am acquainted with a young man who is devastated because his temple marriage ended in divorce. Perhaps his hopes would have been more realistic had he learned prior to his marriage that Wilford Woodruff was married nine times and divorced four times (and that this was not all that unusual in 19th century Utah). No one is going to see this kind of information in The Ensign anytime soon, but the Internet is making it available to anyone with an interest. And whatever the failures of our forebears, we are not doing all that great now; our statistics for such things as divorce and suicide are no longer much better than anyone else’s. Perhaps no one regrets more than I that baptism and confirmation into the LDS church do not guarantee untrammeled happiness, but this would appear to be the case. Darn it.

  24. Richard Anderson says:

    J.F. Smith III also had a history of kidnapping and raping young boys. Look into the August 29th, 1964 kidnapping incident that happened to occur on the corner of 4th Ave and J Street. Look into the August 1972 L.D. S. 21st Ward Scandal. Yes, I am aware that J. F. S. III died on that day in ” a local clinic” but that ” local clinic ” was the emergency room at the LDS Hospital after J. F. S. III got into a violent confrontation while kidnapping an 11 year old boy. S. L. C. Police Detectives, Sgt O. Peck and Sgt Percy Clark ( deceased ) investigated this incident.

  25. Brother Flo says:

    (tm)TREVOR…A national run away [Hotline] for youth who are witnessing sexual/physical abuse in the home is staffed 24/7 and is endorsed by the [Gay & Lesbian Task Force] and ™Affirmation/Affinity.

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