W. W. Phelps’s Ontario Phoenix was located merely eleven miles from Joseph Smith’s family home in Manchester Township, Ontario County, New York. Phelps was barely into his career at the Phoenix when Joseph Jr. received the golden plates in September 1827. William’s advanced role with the Anti-Masonic Party was at its apex in March 1830 when the Book of Mormon was issued to the public. He was fully aware of the rumors concerning the “gold Bible” and the erstwhile treasure seeker who put it out.
William and Sally, largely due to their Puritan upbringing, were devout believers in the Bible and the Savior of the world. William chose not to be a member of any specific denomination. He was a “seeker,” one who rejected all specific creeds and went from one church to another seeking a restoration of the ancient biblical order. When in 1831 he joined Mormonism, Phelps discovered that many other new converts were seekers as well.
Phelps reminisced in 1835 that he “was not a professor [a professed member of a specific religious denomination] at the time” nor was he “a believer in sectarian religion.” He insisted, however, that he was “a believer in God, and the Son of God, as two distinct characters.” He added, “I had long been searching for the ‘old paths’ that I might find the right way and walk in it,” and to “investigate” each possibility as to “prove its truth by corresponding evidence from the old bible, and by the internal witness of the spirit.” He described himself as “a humble follower of the meek and adorable Jesus.”
Phelps was willing “to argue up, or down, any church” because by his own estimation (that later proved to be correct) that he knew the Bible better than most. His discussions were often heated with Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists throughout his young adult life in Homer, Cortland, Trumansburgh, and Canandaigua. William, Sally, and their children attended religious services in Canandaigua, likely different denominations at different times. In an 1835 letter to Sally, Phelps wrote, “The congregations of Saints at Kirtland are larger than any we used to have at Canandaigua.”
After joining the Latter-day Saints and becoming one of their leaders, Phelps wrote in The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate that he had been prepared for the restored gospel. In 1823, the same year Joseph Smith had first gone to Cumorah to see the plates for himself, Phelps said that the Lord had prompted him in a dream to believe readily in the discovery of ancient gold plates. These plates would be the source of “another bible” that contained “more plainness than the one we had, but agreeing with it.” William felt that he would thus be pointed in the right direction to heaven. Phelps explained, though, that when he spoke of his dream in Cortland, he was laughed at. But when he learned in 1830 that the Book of Mormon had been published in nearby Palmyra, he started anew to express his feelings and this time without fear.
The Book of Mormon was printed in the early months of 1830 by Egbert B. Grandin, editor of the Wayne Sentinel, in Palmyra. As a fellow newspaperman of that era, Phelps read all that was published in nearby papers and would have seen the notice on 26 March 1830 that copies of the Book of Mormon were now for sale in Grandin’s office. Furthermore, Phelps was acquainted with his fellow Anti-Mason Martin Harris, who widely touted his advocacy of the new scripture. On 9 April Phelps purchased copies of the Book of Mormon from Grandin and sat up the first night comparing it with the Bible. Soon Sally and he had read the entire volume and were convinced that it contained the word of God. He sold copies of the Book of Mormon in his print shop bookstore.
Since Phelps had stature in his community and in the Anti-Masonic movement, which he desired to maintain, he chose at this time not to affiliate with the Mormons. State elections were scheduled for November of that year, and Phelps planned to campaign for Anti-Masonic causes and candidates throughout the year. He retained his curiosity, however, and continued to keep his eye on Mormonism. After the November elections Phelps turned most of his attention to this new religion and his noteworthy new book. “My heart was there from the time I became acquainted with the book of Mormon,” he stated, “and my hope, steadfast like an anchor, and my faith increased like the grass after a refreshing shower.”
Phelps became increasingly aggravated when he noted opposition to the Book of Mormon in various local presses. He was especially appalled when editors labeled the book blasphemous when they were completely unfamiliar with its contents. Still concerned several years later, he wrote, “Alas! whenever I hear a man judge the book of Mormon before he has read it, I fear he will be found spotted at the judgment seat of the holy Judge!”
After once accepting the Book of Mormon as revealed scripture, Phelps often had contact with Latter-day Saints in his own community. Joseph Smith Sr. and his son Samuel as missionaries were arrested and placed in Canandaigua’s Ontario County Jail in October and November 1830. Joseph Sr. was kept longer than Samuel. Father Smith preached inside the jail each Sunday and succeeded in converting two fellow prisoners (names unknown) and later baptized them. Serving a sentence in the same jail at the time was Eli Bruce, former sheriff of Niagara County, who as a Mason had allegedly murdered Freemasonry opponent William Morgan in 1827. Bruce became well acquainted with Joseph Smith Sr. W. W. Phelps followed closely the cases of the two Smiths and of Eli Bruce while they were in Canandaigua.
Phelps became acquainted, at least to a small degree, with individuals who had either joined the new Mormon religion or were investigating it. Thomas B. Marsh lived with his family in Canandaigua the latter half of 1830 and had already joined the Church. Brigham Young, who was still studying the Book of Mormon, likewise lived in Canandaigua in 1830. Ezra Thayer, an early convert and elder, owned a barn near Canandaigua and invited Joseph Smith to preach in his barn. Phelps also knew fellow Anti-mason Martin Harris from nearby Palmyra, who made numerous business trips to Canandaigua.
Even more significantly, Phelps interacted closely with Sidney Rigdon when the latter came to Canandaigua to preach at the courthouse in December 1830. Rigdon had just left his prominent position as a pastor of a large congregation of restorationist “Reformed Baptists” in Mendon, Ohio, to join the Mormons. He was immediately employed as Joseph Smith’s scribe. Phelps spent numerous hours with Rigdon, and then together with Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith Jr. on 24 December. Phelps may have spent a few days in discourse with Rigdon or with both Rigdon and the Prophet, for, as he wrote to E. D. Howe two weeks later, he spent ten hours in discourse with Sidney Rigdon. In 1844, Rigdon commented about these discussions involving himself, Joseph Smith, and W. W. Phelps: “Elder Phelps came to see us, and expressed great astonishment, and left us, apparently pondering in his heart.”
Phelps came away from his encounter with the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was impressed with Joseph Smith’s “godly account” of his experiences, and he felt his “first determination to quit the folly of [his] way, and the fame and fancy of this work [to] seek the Lord and his righteousness.” On the other hand, he still felt an obligation to pursue the cause of Anti-Masonry. After all, he was still partially sustained financially by businessmen in that movement. But he learned from Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon that the Saints in New York were soon to depart for Ohio. Thus, Phelps was confused about what action he should take: stay in New York, or give up all he had worked for and join the Mormons in Ohio.
Phelps counted the cost of leaving his potentially lucrative printing business. He realized he had nothing to show financially for his first thirty-nine years of life. He discussed solemnly with Sally and the children about their next move–to Ohio to join the Latter-day Saints. A father’s decision was law among religious people in that day, so they all prepared to go to Ohio together. The family gathered its belongings, meager as they were at that point. On 9 June they left Canandaigua and by evening had boarded a canal boat on the Erie Canal bound for Buffalo on Lake Erie. They then sailed by schooner to Fairport, Ohio, and thence via the “Ohio Trail” to Kirtland, twelve miles away, where they heard Joseph Smith was living. No doubt they had mixed feelings–sorrow for their present plight, but hope in Christ for choosing to follow him and his Church with their whole heart.
The Phelpses arrived in Kirtland on 14 June 1831. William sought out the young twenty-five-year-old Prophet where he was then residing at the Isaac Morley farm on the northeast fringe of Kirtland. He announced he was willing “to do the will of the Lord.” Phelps asked Joseph to seek the Lord’s will for him. He knew that other men had asked Joseph Smith the same and been rewarded with revelations addressed to them. The revelation (D&C 55) directed to Phelps was indeed solemn. It began, “Behold, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant William, yea, even the Lord of the whole earth, thou art called and chosen.” The Lord promised Phelps that after he was baptized he would receive a remission of his sins and then the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
Phelps was then told he would be ordained immediately an elder by Joseph Smith so that he could preach repentance and baptism. This was a rare procedure in the infant Mormon Church–to ordain a new convert so soon to be an elder. Joseph knew Phelps already, of course, and knew his struggles and preparation. He also knew that Phelps was a prominent man in society and had many talents. He could be put to use right away such as with the journey planned for Missouri later in the week. The revelation continued: “Verily I say unto you, for this cause you shall take your journey [to Missouri] with my servants Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, that you may be planted in the land of your inheritance [in the land of Zion] to do this work.” The “work” referred to here was William’s assignment to assist Oliver Cowdery, the second elder of the Church, in doing the “work of printing” and in “selecting and writing books for schools in this church.” The revelation added that little children should “receive instruction before me as is pleasing unto me.”
These special callings to Phelps would mean yet more sacrifice for his family. They would have to stay behind in Kirtland and be cared for by the Saints while he made his long journey to Missouri.
Thus was converted one of the most influential Latter-day Saints in the early days of the Church: William W. Phelps. As with countless others in those early days and throughout the history of the Restoration, the Book of Mormon was the chief factor in his conversion. Elder Phelps later related the influence of the Book of Mormon upon him. This statement also reveals how deeply Phelps had absorbed the new gospel message:
Whenever I have meditated upon the book of Mormon, and looked ahead at the glory which will be brought to pass by that, and the servants of God, I have been filled with hope; filled with light; filled with joy, and filled with satisfaction. What a wonderful volume! what a glorious treasure! By that book I learned the right way to God; by that book I found the new covenant; by that book I learned when the Lord would gather scattered Israel; by that book I saw that the Lord had set his hand the second time to gather his people, and place them in their own land; by that book I learned that the poor Indians of America were some of the remnants of Israel; by that book I learned that the new Jerusalem, even Zion was to be built upon this continent; by that book I found a key to the holy prophets; and by that book began to unfold the mysteries of God, and I was made glad.
Extracted from Bruce Van Orden. We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps. RSC, BYU, and Deseret Book, 2018. Footnotes silently deleted. Used by permission of the author.
Born February 17, 1792 in Dover, Hanover Township, New Jersey, William Wines Phelps (also W.W. Phelps, and William W. Phelps) has been referred to as “one of [the] founders” of the Anti-Masonic movement in New York. He was the editor of the Anti-Masonic newspaper Ontario Phoenix in Canandaigua (1827-28). Phelps was also the editor of the Western Courier in Cortland and the Lake Light in Trumansburgh. Phelps helped establish the Anti-Masonic political party and even aspired to be the nominee of the party as lieutenant governor of New York.
Well educated, Phelps was trained in surveying, meteorology, classical langages, printing, and editing. He heard about the Book of Mormon from his newspaper office in Canandaigua, which was only twelve miles away from Palmyra. He purchased a number of copies of the book from E.B. Grandin on April 9, 1830, and sold them in his newspaper office. He and his wife Sally became converted to Mormonism by careful consideration of the Book of Mormon. He met with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon and decided to gather with the Church to Kirtland, Ohio. He and his family gathered to Kirtland in 1831, where he was baptized and ordained an elder in the Church. By assignment, he established a print house in Independence, Missouri, where he published the Evening and Morning Star. While working to publish the church’s Book of Commandments, a mob of vigilantes destroyed Phelps’ home and the press. In Kirtland, Ohio, he helped print the first Latter-day Saint hymnal and the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
A scribe to the Prophet, Phelps was the author of a number of popular Latter-day Saint hymns, including “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning”, which he wrote for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, “If You Could Hie to Kolob”, and “Praise to the Man”. From 1834-1838, he was appointed one of the three “presidents,” and as a counselor to David Whitmer in the Church in Missouri, and in that capacity he helped found the town of Far West, Missouri. Phelps was excommunicated from the church on March 10, 1838 when he and John Whitmer were accused of profiting from Far West land deals and reneging on a $2,000 subscription to “the house of the Lord” that was not paid. In June, 1838, Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Lyman E. Johnson were warned out of Far West or a more fatal calamity shall befall you. Phelps soon returned to Far West, however, and continued to serve the citizens of Far West in civil capacities.
On July 8, 1838, it was decided that Phelps, along with Frederick G. Williams, could be ordained as elders and serve missions abroad, even though they had lost their standing. Phelps served a brief mission in the East in 1841. Phelps moved to Nauvoo, Illinois where on August 27, 1841, he replaced Robert B. Thompson (who had died) as Joseph Smith’s clerk. Phelps was endowed on December 9, 1843 and was also made a member of the Council of Fifty.
During the Succession Crisis in 1844, Phelps sided with Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He was again excommunicated on December 9, 1848 for taking to himself two plural wives without appropriate permission, but was re-baptized two days later. He took part in the Mormon Exodus across the Great Plains and settled in Salt Lake City in 1849. He served a mission in southern Utah from November, 1849 to February, 1850. There he served in the Utah territorial legislature and on the board of regents for the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). Phelps died on March 7, 1872 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Source: www.MormonWiki.com. Used by permission.