The auditorium in the JKB fills with people, and the buzz of their conversations fill the room. It’s the day most BYU students taking a Book of Mormon class dread: the Isaiah chapters. These chapters may confuse or bore some students, but not the students in Hank Smith’s Book of Mormon class.
Smith jokes about a passage of scripture where the Lord says that everyone will be able to eat well because everyone else will be dead, and the students burst into laughter. The students’ phones are in their pockets while they actively take notes and ask questions.
Smith speaks to students like they are his old friends, making it not too hard to believe this BYU professor has over 10,000 followers on Instagram and a Facebook fan page with more than 28,000 likes.
Smith is a prominent figure in the LDS community, speaking at events almost every weekend nationwide. Smith visited more than 15 states for speaking engagements in 2015 alone.
In addition to his speeches, Smith wrote three books and recorded 14 best-selling talks on CDs. Many students are familiar with Smith before they take his Book of Mormon or New Testament classes at BYU.
Liza Holdaway, a sophomore from Carlsbad, California who is applying to the accounting program, said she remembered Smith from BYU’s Education Week. “He’s really funny and really good at teaching little principles,” Holdaway said.
Holdaway’s love for Smith’s teaching style influenced her decision to take a New Testament course from him.
Smith’s classes are characterized by laughter and strong student engagement. Holdaway said one of her favorite things about the class was that the focus is not so much on taking notes but having an active discussion.
Kaleigh Crystal, a senior from Parker, Colorado who is majoring in political science, works for Smith as a teacher’s assistant. “He’s able to explain difficult doctrines or concepts or culture but with the added flair of laughter,” Crystal said. “He’s so good about bringing the humor in but also keeping (his students) engaged and feeling the Spirit. It’s not very easy to do, and I think he does it very well.”
Smith didn’t always want to teach religion at BYU, but he describes himself as someone who has always been goal-oriented. As the youngest of five children, Smith said he was a “fire starter” in his youth. He sometimes “bowled peopled over.”
Smith said his mission to Fresno, California was influential in helping him change from being a fire starter to a “peacemaker.” Smith became an EFY counselor following his mission, which led him to teaching seminary.
Years later, Smith is now a beloved religion professor and an incredibly busy public speaker. While Smith is well-known for speaking at EFY, Time Out for Women and BYU Education Week in the LDS community, he is now branching out into non-LDS speaking events as well. These events include speeches at schools and interfaith events.
Smith’s wife, Sara Smith, said one of the things she admires about her husband is his ability to work. “He is such a hard worker,” she said in an email. “There are incredibly long days where he’s up way before sunrise and returns home long after sunset, and he still walks through the door with a cheerful, loving and kind disposition, never losing his sense of humor.”
Despite Smith’s busy schedule, he has a policy of opening his office to anyone. “I believe that people are more important than things,” Smith said. “This job exists to help BYU students. If I’m not available to them, that kind of goes against the point … I genuinely like (BYU students). I think that’s probably my greatest strength as a teacher.”
Mary Blackner, a senior from University Place, Washington majoring in elementary education, is one of Smith’s former students. Blackner said Smith’s desire to connect with all of the students personally is what makes him a great teacher.
“He went above and beyond in making each student feel important by learning each of their names and learning facts about them,” Blackner said. “It really makes all the difference when you’re not just a name on a professor’s role sheet but actually a person they know and care about.”
Ali Losser, a masters student in public administration from Charleston, West Virginia, also works for Smith as a teacher’s assistant. Losser praised Smith as genuine.
“Amidst all his busyness, he is really good at focusing on individuals,” Losser said. “He’s like, ‘come to my office,’ and when you’re there, he’s focused on you as a person, and he genuinely cares. (He) has thousands and thousands of followers, but he’s really good at balancing and giving time to individuals.”
Smith said he hopes every person who learns from him, whether it be in his CDs or in his class, will come a little bit closer to Christ.
“I try to finish every CD with an invitation to go to the Savior,” Smith said. “I try to bring them back to the why, why we do the things that we do … I hope my students walk out of the class saying, ‘(The Savior) is the answer to my problems. He has the answers.’ My hope is that one of my students will say to themselves, ‘If I bind myself to Him I’m going to be OK.’ He changed me. He gave me everything that I am. I believe He can do that for everyone.'”
Back at the JKB, Smith’s class has been engaged in a lively discussion for the past 45 minutes. There seems to be sense of incredulity in the classroom, a disbelief that the Isaiah chapters could be so interesting. And there’s no doubting Smith’s sincerity as he bears his testimony and finishes the class with a Mormon Message.
Though the class started with chatter, the students leave the classroom in near silence as they ponder the lesson that Smith taught and will keep on teaching.