W. W. Phelps and Mother in Heaven
September 30, 2009 15 Comments
This is not really about the idea of a Mother in Heaven, indeed it is only tangential to a very small part of that issue. Also it tangentially skims the issue of Joseph Smith’s funeral sermons. Nevertheless, I think it is a valuable bit of evidence about one of the early popularizers of Mormon doctrine or doctrinal interpretations, namely William Wines Phelps.
I won’t attempt any sort of biography of Phelps, suffice it to say he was present through much of the intellectual, spiritual and physical expansion of Mormonism during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
I am simply going to relate two anecdotes involving Phelps which took place in early Utah (1850s). These incidents were recorded by two clerks employed by the LDS church in Utah at that period. They are somewhat humorous in my view, but should *not* be taken as soiling the reputation of a dynamic and important personality. Instead they provide a perspective on how he was seen by his cohort and how he viewed his own role in moving Mormonism ahead. Moreover I think they give some hint as to how he treated Joseph Smith’s revelations and teaching in his own compositions.
The first one occurred during a conversation in Brigham Young’s office when several church leaders and their associates were present. A question had come up regarding a past event in Mormonism and no one present knew the answer, including Phelps. Brigham Young said, “let this be recorded in the history, that W. W. Phelps didn’t know the answer to something.” The context of the statement shows it to be both sarcasm but also insightful. Phelps could volunteer his opinions as fact, whether they were backed up by solid evidence or not.
The second incident took place in the church historian’s office in Salt Lake City. George A. Smith had succeeded Willard Richards as church historian, and was busily amassing sources for various events in Joseph Smith’s later life, especially his 1844 assassination in Carthage, Ill. There was so much conflicting data about the event, that GAS was literally losing his hair over the issue of getting the story straight. Folklore had already taken over the narrative. But GAS was determined to drill down to factual information at least for the official history. In doing this, he wished to carefully interview the one surviving witness to the martyrdom, namely John Taylor. One of the clerks in the office, in fact the chief clerk, Thomas Bullock, was assigned to take down what Taylor would say in answer to various questions by GAS. William Phelps was present during the interview. When GAS started asking Taylor to explain the events of Carthage, before he could open his mouth, Phelps would begin to answer the questions, interrupting Taylor or embellishing Taylor’s statements to the point that Taylor nearly gave up trying to answer the questions. Bullock observed, “Phelps could scarce permit him to speak as he knew it all.”
William W. Phelps played many important roles in early Mormonism. One of the lesser known ones was “know it all”! Phelps was quite capable of taking material from Joseph Smith, scripture, and other sources, stirring it together and making his own potluck. One should not be surprised at two things: he was influential, and he was creative. But it’s not at all clear that he was always reliable when it came to his literary expressions of history and doctrine. Expansion and synergy describe much of Phelps’ legacy, and some of it was clearly oneupmanship.
My contribution to the war of thangs.
 George A. Smith reported a conversation with JS in his Nauvoo journal: [see a version in HC 5:390] JS remarked that Phelps was more capable of giving offense than any editor he knew. But if carefully supervised he was an asset. Phelps’ reminiscent narrative drove the summer 1835 church history accounts of the acquisition of the Book of Abraham papyri since no active diaries of principals existed. It’s not surprising that his speculations at the time peek through the history.