Century Mark: Church leader with historic position nears 100th birthday

Great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith approaches his centennial with a full schedule, but a touch of disappointment that the position will die with him

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 30, 2006
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Just 10 days shy of his 100th birthday, Eldred G. Smith is the oldest living and longest-serving LDS general authority - and that includes 96-year-old President Gordon B. Hinckley, who joined the leadership ranks a decade after Smith.

Smith served for 32 years as the LDS Church's "presiding patriarch," endorsed by members as "a prophet, seer and revelator" on par with the church president and 12 apostles. The position was established in 1833 by church founder Joseph Smith, who installed his father as its first occupant and then his brother, Hyrum. Since then, the office of presiding patriarch, charged with giving "patriarchal blessings" to all adult and teen members, passed down the generations to various male descendants in the Smith family.

By 1979, LDS leaders determined the church no longer needed a presiding patriarch because every stake (a group of congregations, like a diocese) had its own. They also had grown uncomfortable with the notion of lineal descent. So they made Smith an emeritus general authority, but allowed him to continue to provide the blessings, each one a personalized spiritual road map, spelling out possibilities such as being married in the temple, going on a mission, being a mother or ministering to the poor.

To this day, Smith receives a "living allowance," maintains an office, has a designated parking place, receives his biannual temple recommend directly from Hinckley and joins other top leaders in the temple on the first Thursday of every month for a special service. He gives blessings to any eager Mormon recommended by local leaders. And he travels around showing several church artifacts - including the clothing his ancestor Hyrum Smith was wearing when he was murdered in 1844 with his brother Joseph in Carthage Jail - to groups of Latter-day Saints.

Yet few Mormons know of Eldred Smith or his previously prominent position. He is largely invisible to the members; even his second-floor office in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City is hard to find. It's beyond the wooden doors, down a hallway and past a bank of cubicles.

Smith doesn't mind the lack of attention on him, he says, and shrugs off the milestone as "not much different than turning 60."

But he is disappointed that the office of presiding patriarch will die with him.

"I accept these changes," he told Mormon authorities in 1979, "but I don't like them."

Waiting for the job: From earliest childhood, Eldred Smith knew the position of patriarch was his spiritual destiny.

He was the oldest son of Hyrum Gee Smith, the fifth Smith in a line of patriarchs. Hyrum Smith was training to be a dentist in California when he got the call that John Smith, his grandfather, had died and the church needed him to return to Utah for the full-time position. Leaders offered no reason for skipping over Hyrum Smith's father.

Hyrum Smith took to the calling with gusto, overseeing a Quorum of Patriarchs who sought advice and training for the mystical calling. He taught his son Eldred to expect the position.

When Hyrum Smith died, Eldred Smith was only 25, not married and without a college degree. Then-LDS President Heber J. Grant felt he was not ready for the position, so the office went vacant.

It was 1932, the depths of the Depression, and Eldred Smith had his mother and seven siblings to care for. Within a year, he married Jeanne Ness and they soon began a family. Thus he was forced to take any job he could find. He carried 200-pound blocks of ice on his back for Hygeia Ice Co. to houses. He scraped, cleaned and painted the entire ceiling of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a job for which his smaller frame and weight were more suited. He painted and hung wallpaper for Bennett Glass & Paint; he worked at, and owned, gas stations and repaired cars.

During World War II, Smith worked as an engineer in Oak Ridge, Tenn., at a company that was enriching uranium for use in the atomic bomb.

Finally, in 1947, he was called back to Utah to become the church's presiding patriarch.

"There is no way to prepare for it, no instructions, no counsel," Smith said this week. "When I was first ordained, I went into my office, closed the door and didn't come out for two weeks. Then a young man came to the door asking for a blessing and so I gave it to him."

How did he know what to do?

"You just say what comes to you," he says.

Smith was soon traveling the world giving patriarchal blessings. While in Australia in 1966, for example, he gave 139 blessing in 16 days. He had five full-time secretaries to type what he dictated. He always spoke in English, but if the recipients spoke another language, he would send the transcripts to the LDS Church offices for translation. To date, he's given more than 19,000 blessings.

Gary Smith, Eldred Smith's oldest son, sees his father as a practical man, an engineer, given to tinkering with clocks and fixing things around the house. He recalls sitting in the room as a teen while his father intoned the words of a patriarchal blessing for strangers.

"I thought, 'Who is this man?' as he was talking. He was articulate, profound and incisive," says Gary Smith, co-author with Irene Bates of Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch. "The minute he finished [the blessing], it was my dad again."

It was a spiritual experience for the son, who felt divine power in the moment.

"My mother taught me that I should never expect the office, but live worthy of it," Gary Smith says. "That's what I've done."

But it will never be his.

A new kind of calling: Though he stopped traveling abroad and lost some of his secretaries, Eldred Smith added a new dimension to his work after 1979. He began to take the artifacts he had inherited from his Smith ancestors on the road. He and his wife, Hortense (whom he married two years after Jeanne died in 1977), have given more than 1,000 fireside chats in such cities as Stockholm, Tucson, Ariz., Honolulu and New York.

Smith is descended from Hyrum Smith, brother of Joseph Smith. After Hyrum Smith was killed, his widow, Mary Fielding Smith, brought the artifacts to Utah. They were passed down, by tradition, through the eldest-son line until Eldred Smith inherited them. After he dies, they will go to Gary Smith.

The Smiths display Hyrum Smith's bloodied clothes to help people get a sense of how big a man he was - about 6 foot 3 inches. They hold up the watch Hyrum had in his pocket that was shattered by a bullet and show the box that Joseph Smith said he used to hold the gold plates, which contained the writings Smith said he translated into the Book of Mormon.

The LDS Church does not finance these presentations, and the Smiths accept no payment.

"This undertaking is physically challenging, but invigorating," Gary Smith says. "My father has reinvented his service parameters in a way that possibly blesses as many or more than if he had remained as an openly recognized general authority."

And Patriarch Smith continues to give blessings to anyone who asks.

"Very few members know that, and, indeed, fewer and fewer members remember or ever knew there ever was such a position as churchwide patriarch," says Gary Smith, who lives in Southern California. "The only open acknowledgment of his current status is the sign on the second floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building as you come out of the elevator."

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