Under leadership of...

Frederick M. Smith (1915-1946)

auditorium chamber

Frederick Madison Smith
(Community of Christ archives)

Frederick Madison Smith, son of Joseph Smith III, served as prophet-president of the church from 1915 to 1946. While his father had stepped into leadership of a pluralistic group of people from many backgrounds, Frederick M. Smith took over a church that had weathered many controversies over doctrine and theology and melded into one fairly cohesive body.

However, his leadership style and focus were quite different from his father’s. Fred M., the sole member of Graceland College’s first graduating class in 1898, was an extremely curious man, interested in science, mathematics, and philosophy. He was a strong advocate for the social expression of the gospel, believing that the concept of Zion was a way to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to life in both the church and the world.

Since Joseph Smith III had led the church for fifty-four years, there were many who had never known a different style of leadership. Joseph was not a strong administrator, recognizing that his strengths lay in pulling people of diverse viewpoints together. His son had a more aggressive style, stating bluntly what he believed—and expected others to follow. When he came to the presidency, he felt that the contemporary understanding of the principle of common consent had the potential of pulling the church apart again. As many in the church understood the concept, "common consent" meant that if the laws and rules put in place by authority were unpopular, individuals had the right to ignore them. For Smith, "common consent" meant that church members had the privilege and right to discuss and debate church laws and rules as they were being established, but once those laws were established, individuals had the right and responsibility of obeying them.

frederick Madison Smith
(Community of Christ archives)

This—and his vision of the prophet-president of the church as the person who had the ultimate responsibility of leading the church in the direction he felt led by God—created friction between Fred M. and church members. In 1925,  the controversy came to a climax at the church’s General Conference, and Fred M.’s viewpoint won.

Fred M. led the church through the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. The Depression caused the church to look seriously at its financial structure because it was deeply in debt. In order to pay off this debt, the 1932 General Conference approved a new financial policy that would allow the church to continue and create reserves. In 1932, the church had been close to financial insolvency; by 1942, that prospect had disappeared, and the church was in much better financial health.