W. W. Phelps and Mother in Heaven

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.[1] Expansion and synergy describe much of Phelps’ legacy, and some of it was clearly oneupmanship.

My contribution to the war of thangs.


[1] 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.

15 Responses to W. W. Phelps and Mother in Heaven

  1. Matt W. says:

    Ouch, WVS. 🙂

  2. Matt W. says:

    In all seriousness, in the case of Heavenly Mother, since we are adding Phelps as a second witness to Snow (And possibly Zina Huntington), is this relevant? Further, can you produce any evidence of where Phelps actually perpetrated a fabrication? Last I checked, being a “know it all” isn’t a problem, so long as the facts are pretty strait. I don’t see any examples of expansion here in your post, and like Sam Brown said regarding Paracletes, it makes sense that these elements existed in context with Brigham Young’s later teachings.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Matt, I don’t think WVS is saying what you are implying. It is important context to note that Phelps was known for his…creativity. I think his expansionist tendencies are well documented. I generally do think that the “queen of heaven” concept was extant at the time of Joseph Smith, even though there is no contemporary documentation of it. It is just important to make note of all the contexts so as not to unwisely make conclusions from certain evidence.

  4. Blake says:

    J. — Phelps seems to have believed that the Queen of Heaven, the Mother in Heaven was Eve. Is that consistent with your take on Phelps?

  5. Blake says:

    BTW these anecdotes are priceless.

  6. WVS says:

    I think it’s fairly clear that Phelps (like the Pratt’s for example) didn’t feel too bad about expanding on what they may have heard from JS in different contexts. Whether JS said something about MiH or not I think is problematic. But Phelps was not a dummy. He could take what facts he knew about temple ordinance and the rhetoric that surrounded it (including D&C 132), and extrapolate from that, just as current debaters of the issue do. Phelps’ use of the OT motif is pretty typical of him. And the spirit birth notion is, in my opinion clearly an extrapolation of late Nauvoo language. Snow’s later poem is certainly more specific. And there is a *reason* Woodruff called it (the poem) a revelation and it wasn’t the unusual meter.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    and it wasn’t the unusual meter.


  8. boaporg says:

    Just to push the Mother in Heaven thing a bit further, and away from Phelps, this is Lorenzo Snow in 1842 (Snow’s letterbook for Feb. 14, 1842). In this speculation Snow comes into direct contact with JS’s teaching (of which he was probably unaware). Orson Pratt produced a “Mormon Creed” in spring 1844 (while he was in Wash. D.C.) which he published in 1845 in his almanac. It echoes Snow’s speculation. Maybe Eliza had help:

    When I write to you I feel to let my imagination rove I do not know why may be because you are sometimes as foolish as myself and wish to know and dwell upon big things of the kingdom.

    Then let us indulge our follies at this time and wander a moment into the field of imagination. Some thirteen thousand years ago in Heaven or in Paradise (say) we came into existence or in other words received a spiritual organization according to the laws that govern spiritual births in eternity. We were there and then (say) born in the express image and likeness of him by whom we received our spiritual birth possessing the same faculties & powers but in their infantile state yet susceptable of an elevation equal to that of those possessed by our Spiritual Father But in order to effect this we must needs be planted in a material tabernacle.

    Accordingly the great machine was set in motion whereby bodies for the immortal sons and daughters of God came into being . . . the sons of God or the spirits awaiting to be perfected shouted with joy in anticipation of one day being like their Father in all things both in relation to becoming the Father of Spirits and that of Glorified bodies.


  9. WVS says:

    Ok, so Snow is not far from a Mother in Heaven, talking about births. 🙂 Here’s Pratt’s creed (spring 1844):

    What is man? The offspring of God.

    What is God? The father of man.

    Who is Jesus Christ? He is our brother. . . .

    How many states of existence has man? He has three.

    What is the first? It is spiritual.

    What is the second? It is temporal.

    What is the third? It is immortal and eternal.

    How did he begin to exist in the first? He was begotten and born of God.

    How did he begin to exist in the second? He was begotten and born of the

    Observe that Pratt expressly violates the NBNE axiom Joseph was so fond of. Observe also the Encyl. Mormonism article on Mother in Heaven, which claims JS taught this (MiH) in 1839. No quotation is given. Apparently this refers to the late and hearsay testimony of Susa Young Gates. There are a few other claimed connections to JS, but these appear to be confused memories. One in particular by Zebedee Coltrin appears elsewhere as a vision of Adam rather than God.

    • todrobbins says:

      On the subject of Coltrin. I have read two accounts. One states that the beings seen in vision where Adam and Ever, and another says God and his wife. I’m out of citations at the moment but I’ll post it on here when I find it. Anyone know the validity of either? Is one account more reliable than the other?

      • boaporg says:

        The Adam version comes from official minutes of Salt Lake school of the prophets I believe. The other one is perhaps hearsay, taken I think from A. H. Cannon journal.


  10. boaporg says:

    This whole issue deserves a really careful treatment. Any takers? One problem I see is the difficult interconnection with so much of “Mormon metaphysics.”


  11. todrobbins says:

    PS: J:

    You are a comment maniac and yet haven’t posted on your blog in nearly a year! I love it.

  12. smb says:

    Phelps was definitely his own man and convinced of the significance of his views. I’m not sure you can safely get from there to discrediting his attestation of early queen of heaven, though. Incidentally, Phelps is well before Adam-God/Eve-MiH. His is more the middle ground between familiar JSJ and BY/ERS. His queen of heaven was antecedent to Adam and Eve.

  13. WVS says:

    I’m just not sure how much of Queen of Heaven is JS, how much is Phelps. The language is not JS. I think he might be extrapolating from JS and the whole eternal marriage thing, well advertised by that time. But I’m not at all sure about it. It would be a natural extension of the God is a man business. Whether JS made that, I wonder.

    The apostles seemed to jump right in the breach after JS’s death. They, most of them, seemed to feel pretty unfettered. The Pratt’s were doing their own thing even before, but mostly I think they were ignorant of much of what JS was saying in Nauvoo.

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