Jessie Evans Smith
How many women have been lost and forgotten over time? Millions! One, that I would like to remind you of right now is Jessie Evans, born in 1902.
She began singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the age of fifteen. Later, she sang all over the world with opera companies. She was asked to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, but turned them down. Around this time, she was also offered the part of Mother Superior, in the Sound of Music, but turned it down as well.
She was a popular soloist around town, including singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As Ethel Reynolds Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith’s second wife, lay in her bed, she requested that Jessie Evans sing at her funeral. Shortly after that, Pres. Smith began calling on her.
Jessie Evans and Joseph Fielding Smith were married in 1938, when Jessie was 36 years old and he was 62. By then she had developed her full character and was completely secure in herself. She is most noted for her flamboyance and confidence; a real character we should admire. She made life full and invited all those around her to come along for the ride, including her prophet husband.
This was a woman who never gave birth to a baby, but she was a mother to so many of us. Her style exuded beloved confidence and her wisdom was received with love and devotion.
Enjoy these stories and notables about her (be warned, some are hopefully a bit exaggerated):
“While Joseph Fielding Smith was a stern man in public, his wife, Jessie Evans Smith, was vivacious and outgoing. When asked by her husband to speak during a priesthood meeting to which she had accompanied him, she opened with, “Brethren, do you know what you get when you grow marijuana on the stake farm?” Startled, the men looked at each other waiting for the punch line. “High priests!” she chuckled.”
Jessie Evans traveled all over the world with her husband, speaking, as well as singing, at many conferences. Often, she would drag Pres. Smith up with her to sing duets. These became known as “do its”, because Pres. Smith knew there was no choice in the matter.
An excellent needlepointer, she invented a magnifying glass that could show her work more clearly, while freeing her hands.
She sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir longer than any other member: 50 years.
Being the third wife, and instant mother of eleven children, she told them right away she was not there to replace their mothers. They called her “Aunt Jessie” from the very beginning, and grew to love her quirky, and very loving, personality.
Jessie was quite a bit younger than Joseph Fielding. He was known for his austere demeanor, but she kept him young and lively. Many times she was heard kindly yelling, “Joe, hurry up!” and he would come arunnin’.
“The Smiths’ home was invaded by reporters and cameramen wanting to interview Jessie Evans. As one cameraman tried to take a picture of her she screamed, ‘No, you can’t take my picture. I’m not wearing my Bible dress.’ When the reporters asked her what a Bible dress was, she smiled–she’d been waiting for them to ask. She just patted her ample bosom and said airily, ‘A Bible dress–you know–low and behold.”
“One time President Smith gave a strong talk on how the brethren should preside in the home and not their wives. Afterwards Sister Smith got up and said how much she agreed with her husband’s remarks, adding, however, that although President Smith might preside in their home, she conducted.”
“One day President Smith gave a talk in conference and for his subject he chose being in the world and not of the world. Eventually he got onto the subject of loose women and how to spot them. One of his criteria of a loose woman was that she wore too much makeup. ‘Let this be a warning to you women: don’t wear too much makeup,’ he said sternly. And all the while there sat Aunt Jessie behind him in the choir section, smiling and waving at everyone–with her lipstick on three inches thick.”
“We were on our way to the elevator when the door opened and out came President and Sister Smith. We just stood there with our mouths open, staring at him and didn’t say anything. President Smith kind of walked around our group, kind of looking at the ground like he didn’t even see us. Jessie Evans smiled and nodded at us and said, ‘Daddy, come back here, these kids want to talk to you for a while.’ So he turned around and came back and laughed and joked with us for five or six minutes.”
In her talks she would say, “Wait for the right one, girls. The right one can take you to the temple. I waited!”
She bore testimony: “Always remember that the Lord has the power to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. If we do our part and prayerfully seek him, he’ll be with us. I know. Decisions ought to be made in favor of our Heavenly Father. When I had an opportunity as a young woman to become a contralto with the Metropolitan Opera, I told them I’d have to pray about it. I also studied my patriarchal blessing, which promised me that my success would come in the service of the Lord. So I came home and rejoined the Tabernacle Choir.”
Known for her happiness and quick smile, she said, “Happiness isn’t always doing what you want to do. Sometimes it’s doing what you don’t want to do and being glad you did.” At her funeral it was said of her that she knew it was her duty to be happy.
She was glad to be a woman and wanted all women to feel the same. “Women are the flowers in God’s great garden, and they ought to look perky.” Aunt Jessie’s brightly flowered gowns, her multicolored beads and earrings, and the ever-present orchid were trademarks. When she sang “I Enjoy Being a Girl” at BYU, the laughter and applause shook the rafters.
Stories gathered from:
“The Legend of Jessie Evans Smith”, Linda Harris, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol 44
Emerson Roy West, Latter-Day Prophets
“The Legacy of Jessie Evans Smith”, Elaine Cannon, The New Era, Sep. 1971