W.W. Phelps is one of the best known leaders in early Mormon history that wasn’t an apostle. Dr. Bruce Van Orden is the author of We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout, a biography of WW Phelps. I knew that Phelps was a newspaper editor prior to joining the Church, but I was surprised to learn that he was arrested and jailed before he was even baptized due to his friendliness to the Book of Mormon. Bruce will tell us more.
Bruce: [Phelps] got interested in the Book of Mormon, as he heard about it. He lived in Canandaigua. His newspaper was the Ontario Phoenix and Canandaigua was only 12 miles away from Palmyra. All the newspaper editors knew each other, and he knew of what was happening in Palmyra and he knew about the Book of Mormon. He went and obtained several copies of the Book of Mormon, and sold some of them in his bookstore of his printing office. He had gotten so interested in it, and went about the vicinity, inquiring more about the background of Joseph Smith and the origins of the Book of Mormon. Because of that, businessmen who were supporting his newspaper got annoyed, and they took out charges against at W.W. Phelps, for indebtedness. [At that time,] still in the state of New York, a person could be jailed for indebtedness, and he was jailed for 30 days. He ended up writing to various newspapers in upstate New York about his plight and that exposed what was going on and so he was let out. But, he decided at that point, he had already been converted in his heart to the Book of Mormon, and he decided at that point that he would resign his editorship, which was a major undertaking. And then [he would] go to Kirtland where he knew the Latter-day Saints had began to gather and [he would] say, “I’m with you. I’m here to do God’s will. Use me as you will.”
GT: It’s surprising to me that, that he was jailed even before he became Mormon. I guess we can still use that term, right?
Bruce: [Yes, we can use that term,] because he used it and Joseph Smith used it. They refer to the movement as Mormonism. W.W. Phelps was the main writer and he used the term all the time. So you bet I’m going to use Mormon and Mormonism.
Phelps was part of some of the most important events in early Mormonism. He was converted without missionaries, just simply by reading the Book of Mormon. Did you know he was jailed before he joined? What do you know about WW Phelps?
It is true that Phelps did many things to assist the Church. But he did write the Poem “Praise to the Man” that became the hymn that Joseph would not have liked.
We should be singing Praises to God, not to man. Indeed, we should not use Church settings to do something that approximates worship of any man. Only God and Jesus Christ should be worshipped in this Church.
I wrote this in comments to the previous W&T post by Bishop Bill. It’s evidence of W.W. Phelps’s zeal (probably to excess) regarding the movement. Regardless, his communication skills (as a writer and hymn writer) were important factors in the early church.
W. W. Phelps’s “Evening and Morning Star” was offensive to the existing residents of Jackson County, Missouri, starting with the newspaper’s name: The heathen gentiles were the “evening star” about to go down and be replaced by the “morning star” (Mormons) who believed God had given them the land as their divine inheritance. Phelps filled the paper with all kinds of apocalyptic references of hellfire and damnation. But it was his editorial “Free People of Color” which he printed as a warning to some free blacks considering moving to “Zion” that really set the slave-owning Missourians on edge. They read the editorial as a plan to abolish slavery and, well, that just wouldn’t do. Things went downhill quickly after that.
Rich, you’re previewing my next episode! I think Bruce has a slightly different take on this than you do.
Rick B: I based my comments on the work of Richard Howard, CofC historian emeritus, from his book, “The Church Through the Years,” Vol. 1 (Herald House, 1992). I may be a bit prejudiced, of course, as Dick is a personal friend and his wife Barbara was an editor with me at HH when I was book editor there (and, yes, I edited Dick’s books).
John A. Widtsoe died in 1952. This facilitated the the Church’s conservative, anti-science swing with the publishing of “Man: His Origin and Destiny” and “Mormon Doctrine.”
Sorry, my comment was intended for T&S, please feel free to delete the above comment (and this one).
20th century RLDS mentions that W.W.P. was one of the victims of the Far West purging, but not the fact that he sought forgiveness and later rejoined. Ditto Oliver Cowdery. Rich might know if it’s included now.
Phelps was one of the leading figures for the early church in Missouri and represents that experience to me.