W.W. Phelps was deeply involved in editing a political newspaper prior to joining the Church and was no stranger to partisan political fights. When he and the saints arrived in Missouri, trouble followed quickly. Was Phelps to blame for the poor reception in Missouri? Dr. Bruce Van Orden, biographer of Phelps and author of We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout, will answer that question.
GT: W.W. Phelps, when he was in New York, got involved in the political tussles in New York, as you mentioned, the anti-Masonic party and that sort of thing. How much of the problems in Missouri we’re because of his pugnacious, I guess, attitudes in the newspaper industry?
Bruce: The word pugnacious is fair, but it is unfair to place all the blame on Phelps. Some people have done that. Because he was a newspaper editor, people knew about him, his name was on the business. It was right next to the courthouse and people knew about Phelps, but he was not alone….
GT: Who are some of the other people?
Bruce: Well, I’d say Sidney Rigdon, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, William McClellan, probably Edward Partridge, Isaac Morley, John Corrill.
GT: So, quite a quite a few.
GT: Do you think–could they have lived there in peace if they’d have been a little less combative?
Bruce: No doubt about it. But the reason they were combative is because they felt that this was the New Jerusalem and that Christ would be coming quite soon. They felt that. Even in the Evening and Morning Star, Phelps talked about the signs of the times and that they were telling us that the time is coming in the Redeemer of Israel hymn. He said the tokens already appeared, meaning the signs are already here to say that it’s coming. He wrote, “I may be wrong in this, but I’m calculating this based on biblical evidence, and I think it might be nine years from now, when he comes.”
GT: Oh wow. So, you can understand why the Missourians were pretty upset.
Bruce: Yes, I can certainly understand.
We’ll go deeper into the Missouri Troubles.
Following the Kirtland Banking Crisis, many were disillusioned with Joseph Smith’s leadership. Thomas Marsh was among those who helped Joseph clear out the disaffected, and he set his sights on a disgruntled W.W. Phelps. Dr. Bruce Van Orden, biographer of W.W. Phelps and author of We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout, will tell us more about the showdown.
Bruce: [Marsh] was the president of the Twelve because he was supposedly the oldest. Section 112, which outlines what the Twelve Apostles do, in taking the gospel to all the world. Well, [apostles] Marsh and Patten stayed in Ohio for a while and got rid of some of the apostates that were coming forward as a result of this bank crisis and other apostate activities going on. There were lots of them. Four of the original Twelve were cut off from the Church, under the direction of Joseph Smith, with the aid of Thomas B. Marsh. Marsh was trying to say, “I’m helping you clean up the place.” Then, he was assigned to go back to live in Missouri, where he didn’t have any specific authority, but he took with him an admonition from Joseph Smith that Phelps and John Whitmer, were doing some things in error. Well, what Joseph Smith had heard from Marsh is that they were using these monies to buy up the property. Then, they would carve out the property into lots in Far West into square lots, and then sell them for a profit. But, the money that was brought in as a result of the profit from selling these lots was to go to the temple. But Marsh didn’t like the idea that these guys were in charge, and he wasn’t. So, when he got back to Missouri in late 1837, and then in 1838, he concocted another court, and this time had enough support from the High Council. It wasn’t presided over in the right way, at all. They excommunicated W.W. Phelps and John Whitmer and installed themselves as the new presidency. ‘Okay, we got rid of them. We’re not the presidency,’ Thomas Marsh and David Patten.
GT: So this is confusing.
Bruce: It is confusing. It’s complicated, but it was a power struggle. It was a coup. By the way, Phelps was not perfect in his relationship. He shot back and had snide remarks and was a bit mischievous in his relationship with Marsh at that point.
GT: So, let me make sure we understand. Essentially, the Whitmers and W.W. Phelps are leading the church. Marsh is an apostle and actually president the Twelve Apostles, but they’re not supposed to have authority where a High Council exists. Marsh, essentially, usurped authority in Missouri and excommunicated Phelps and the Whitmers. Is that right?
Bruce: He and Patten both plotted with members of the High Council to undermine Phelps and Whitmer. Remember, David Whitmer still in the east. By the time they finally held the proceedings, David Whitmer had returned, but they didn’t excommunicate him because they felt that–well, Bishop Partridge says, “You’re doing this entirely illegally. A court for them would be held by the bishopric, not by you guys.” According to the revelations, Partridge was right, but they went ahead and excommunicated those two anyway, with the High Council’s approval. He wanted to get it done before Joseph Smith arrived. Then when Joseph arrives, he can say, “See, I helped you clean out Ohio, and I’ve cleaned up Missouri and now we’re ready to have you just take over.”
GT: Okay. Marsh basically cleaned out all the apostates.
Bruce: And Patten, together.
GT: So, all the people that were upset about the bank, so that would have been McLellin, probably. Is that right?
Bruce: McLellin was the fifth one that ended up being lost.
Phelps would return to the church, but this wouldn’t be the last time he was excommunicated. What are your thoughts on these rivalries? Were you aware of them? How much blame does Phelps deserve for Missouri troubles?
It’s interesting how virtually every single man (and Emma too) involved in early Church history (Cowdery, Harris, Whitmer, Phelps, etc.) were bad guys but somehow Joseph Smith was the good idea. Praise to the man. Somehow all these other guys had major flaws that lead to their excommunications but Joseph was above it all. And then when Brigham Young took over he too was very flawed. For example, he had 50+ wives with whom he had sex but Joseph somehow didn’t have sex with his plural wives. Really an amazing person.