Some time ago, in the course of studying LDS Church history, I ran across the pre-1844 letters of William Law, compiled by Lyndon Cook and published in BYU Studies Journal 20:2, in the article “‘Brother Joseph Is Truly a Wonderful Man, He Is All We Could Wish a Prophet to Be’: Pre-1844 Letters of William Law”.
William Law is famous for his involvement with the Nauvoo Expositor following his ousting from the First Presidency and subsequent excommunication from the Church; however, prior to all of that he was an ardent defender of Joseph Smith, and his letters reflect a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on various topics.
Here is how Lyndon Cook described William Law’s pre-Nauvoo Church experience:
He later moved to Churchville, Ontario, Canada, where he owned and operated a mill and served as local postmaster. Here in Upper Canada William married Canadian-born Jane Silverthorn, who bore him eight children. It was here that William Law was converted to the Church in 1836 through the efforts of efforts John Taylor and Almon W. Babbitt.
Located nearly twenty five miles northwest of Toronto, Churchville was for a time recognized as a major stronghold of Mormonism in Upper Canada, and William Law appears to have presided over the Churchville branch after his ordination to elder by Parley P. Pratt on 24 April 1837. Some of William’s close Mormon friends in Churchville and neighboring settlements were the Jacob Scott family, Robert B. Thompson, James Mulholland, and the Edward Lawrence family,
all of whom would have interesting relationships with the Prophet in Nauvoo, Illinois.
After the major Mormon exodus from Kirtland in 1838, many Canadian Saints possessed of a gathering spirit, made preparations to remove to Far West, Missouri. William Law, however, was unable to dispose of his business concerns in Upper Canada until 1839, when Nauvoo had become the new gathering place. Bent on gathering with the Saints, William led a seven-wagon caravan of Canadian Saints to Nauvoo, arriving the first week of November 1839. Nauvoo would be home for William and his family until the summer of 1844.
The letters published in the piece are written prior to William’s arrival in Nauvoo, while he was in Canada. Of interest to me was a comment William made about the difficulties surrounding the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society, which, to many Saints, tarnished Joseph’s claim to be a prophet. In a letter to James Mulholland dated March 27, 1839, William discusses some of the negative things going on in the church, including the negativity surrounding the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society.
I have no doubt but there has been transgression in the Church or the Lord would not scurge them, but all things will work together for good to those who love and fear God–. And as to Joseph building a Bank at Kirtland, I look on it as like unto the affair of David being moved by God to number the people when he was displeased with Israel, — See 2d Samuel 24 Chap. 1st. verse — So the Lord was angry with the Saints and suffered them to have the Bank as a snare that he might punish them for their love of riches and speculation &c.
William compares the Kirtland Safety Society to the story told in 2 Samuel when God was angry with the people of Israel for their sins. As a result, he “incited David against them”, telling David to conduct a census and count all of the people of Israel. David conducts the census and is stricken with sorrow for sinning, admitting to God that he should not have conducted the census. God then sends the seer, Gad, to offer David three options as a consequence of the sin: three years of famine, fleeing from enemies for three months, or three days’ pestilence in the land. David throws himself at the mercy of God rather than his enemies so there is a pestilence in which 70,000 people die. Afterward, David says that he alone has sinned and offers sacrifice to end the pestilence.
I find it fascinating that William makes such a comparison. It seems William viewed the Saints’ love of riches as a reason for God to be displeased, similar to how he was displeased with ancient Israel. Joseph, like David, takes matters into his own hands, overstepping his bounds in creating a bank in Kirtland. Then, like Israel, the two sins bring about a punishment at the hands of God, where that which they so loved was reduced or taken away (riches in Kirtland; a large kingdom for Israel and David, which was reduced by 70,000 people).
We talk a lot about fallible leaders and supporting them when they make mistakes. The story of David as told in 2 Samuel tells of God’s continuing love of David and Israel despite their mistakes. David was still supported in his role by God even after he overstepped his bounds. It was a learning opportunity for David and all of Israel. William viewed Joseph in a similar manner. He seems to have believed that Joseph, along with the rest of the Saints, were taught a lesson by the snare they created for themselves, and that, like David, God was still supportive of Joseph, despite his mistake.
William’s perspective provides an example of supporting and loving a leader even though he or she has made mistakes. Notice William didn’t condone the actions of the Saints or Joseph Smith in Kirtland, but he provides a perspective that makes room for a God who continues to work with people in their mistakes. I can appreciate that.
Interestingly, despite being labeled an apostate, I think William’s actions in Nauvoo are consistent with this perspective, as he endeavored many times to convince Joseph of his errors before, ultimately, deciding to force the issue by printing the Nauvoo Expositor.
- What do you think of William’s perspective?
- How do the things we set our hearts upon become snares to us?
- Is there some limit at which we can no longer support a leader? What is that limit?
: The Hebrew here is ambiguous and could be read as God inciting David to conduct the census, or as David inciting himself to conduct the census.
: The potential reasons for considering a census as sinful is a longer discussion than I want to engage in here, but, in the ancient Near East a man could only count things that he owned. Since Israel was owned by God, David had sinned by counting as his what belongs to God. This concept can also be seen in Exodus 30:12.