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Longest-serving Mormon general authority dies at 106

Published April 6, 2013 10:50 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

He labored under nine LDS Church presidents. He was the oldest and longest-serving Mormon general authority. In fact, he outlived the church position he held. Still, he rubbed shoulders with LDS prophets and apostles right up until the day before he died.

Eldred G. Smith, who served for 32 years as Mormonism's "presiding patriarch," died Thursday evening at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 106.

Smith's position as church patriarch, once endorsed by members as "a prophet, seer and revelator" on par with the church president and 12 apostles, was created by Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1833. The LDS prophet chose his father as its first occupant and next his brother Hyrum. From then on, the office, charged with giving "patriarchal blessings" to all adult and teen members, passed down the generations to various male descendants in the Smith family.

Eldred Smith, a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, was patriarch from 1947 until 1979, when LDS leaders determined the church no longer needed a presiding patriarch because, they said, every stake (a group of congregations similar to a diocese) had its own.

Smith's eldest son, Gary Smith, who wrote a history of the LDS patriarch's office, cited another reason: discomfort with an extra-apostolic office.

"From the time of [the Smith brothers'] martyrdom in 1844 on," Gary Smith said, "it was problematic for the church to have an inherited office."

So authorities made Eldred Smith an emeritus general authority, but allowed him to continue to provide some blessings, each one a personalized spiritual road map. He traveled around showing several church artifacts — including the clothing his ancestor Hyrum Smith was wearing when he was killed with his prophet-brother in Illinois' Carthage Jail — to groups of Latter-day Saints.

"Though I didn't know him personally, Eldred Smith embodied the Mormon patriarchal ideal — that we are connected in our families going back through time — and brought it into the 20th century," said historian Richard Bushman, an ordained LDS patriarch. "No one spoke as long and as effectively about Joseph Smith as Patriarch Smith. His passing will be a loss."

To the end of his life, Smith received a "living allowance," maintained an office, had a designated parking place, received his biannual temple recommend directly from the church president and joined other top leaders in the Salt Lake LDS Temple on the first Thursday of every month for a special service. This week, Smith, in a wheelchair, attended the monthly meeting on Wednesday because of the upcoming LDS General Conference.

"The church lost a valued friend and respected leader with the passing of Patriarch Eldred G. Smith," the LDS Church said in a statement. "He was a man who lived a Christ-centered life as he faithfully served as patriarch to the church. We pray for the Lord's blessing to be upon his family at this tender time."

It didn't bother Eldred Smith that few contemporary Mormons knew him or his previously prominent position. But he was disappointed, he told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2006, that the office of presiding patriarch would die with him.

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

From earliest childhood, Eldred Smith believed the position of patriarch was his spiritual destiny. He was the eldest son of Hyrum G. Smith, who 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. 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 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. In the 1940s, he worked as a low-level engineer in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on the Manhattan Project, building 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 told the paper. "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."

Smith was soon traveling the globe 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 LDS Church offices for translation. By the time he died, Smith had given nearly 20,000 blessings.

After 1979, Smith and his wife, Hortense (whom he married two years after Jeanne died in 1977), went on the Mormon unpaid fireside circuit. The couple displayed Hyrum Smith's bloodied clothes to help people get a sense of how big a man he was — about 6 foot 3. They held up the watch Hyrum had in his pocket that was shattered by a bullet and showed 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.

Gary Smith and his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Smith, moved to Utah from California six years ago, during which time the father and son renewed their relationship.

"He became my best friend," Gary Smith said Friday. "He was a man without guile. You knew that what you heard and what you saw was how he really was. No facade. A practical man with a quiet spirituality. Most of us have our facades but not my dad."

When he turned 105, Eldred Smith got a special birthday visit from the current Mormon president, Thomas S. Monson, the LDS Church News reported, and the two shared memories of their decades of service.

Hortense Smith died last year, and Eldred Smith slowed down somewhat, Gary Smith said, but he was lucid to the end. Meanwhile, the son is continuing the Smith family artifact firesides.

A funeral is set for Wednesday.

pstack@sltrib.com

Eldred G. Smith funeral

When • Wednesday, 11 a.m.

Where • Monument Park LDS Stake Center, 1320 S. Wasatch Drive

Friends and family may call Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Larkin Sunset Lawn Mortuary, 2350 E. 1300 South, and at the stake center Wednesday from 9:30 to 10:40 am. Burial will be at Salt Lake City Cemetery.