The years 1836-1838 were some of the most tumultuous in Church history. Events included the Kirtland Banking Crisis, the Fanny Alger affair, excommunication of high church leaders including Oliver Cowder, Thomas Marsh, and the Whitmer brothers. There were lots of changing alliances and not only a civil war among the Mormons of Missouri, but Mormons had to contend with their Missouri neighbors who didn’t like their presence either. Dr. Bruce Van Orden, author of We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout, describes how WW Phelps viewed these events.
Bruce: There are two possibilities. Either he did this totally out of harmony with God, adultery, as some people have alleged, or he did it with God’s approval. I choose to believe, based on my belief system, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that this was done, with God’s approval. But I think it was a mistake. I think it was a wrong thing to do.
GT: Oh, that’s interesting. I know there’s some question on the dating and I’ve just had a conversation on Facebook with somebody. He said the marriage to Fanny was definitely after the Elijah visit in April 1836. But I know Brian had thought it was earlier than that.
Bruce: No, I’m absolutely certain it was 1835.
GT: Okay, so you go earlier at 1835. So, Elijah hadn’t appeared yet.
Bruce: Right. Speaking of that, I mean, we make a huge deal today, in retrospect, talking about Elijah and the keys and the restoration and those four heavenly visitors in the Kirtland temple in April of 1836, after the temple is dedicated, all the restoration of the keys. They didn’t talk about it back then. They didn’t mention them. When the sealing went forward in Nauvoo, it wasn’t saying, “Oh, Elijah brought back the sealing. I’m doing what Elijah wanted.” He didn’t say that. We’ve kind of concluded that it has to do with Elijah, the keys, and that may be true. But this whole idea of keys and the restoration of priesthood authority and priesthood ways of doing things, they hadn’t got it all clarified. We now have it. “It’s this, this and this,” but they didn’t have it clarified in their minds.
GT: Well, and that’s been my big confusion because even if we’re willing to go with April 1836, which I think is still in a dispute, but let’s assume that’s true. Oliver was there with Joseph.
GT: So, how is it that Oliver would have been confused about that vision?
Bruce: I don’t think he was confused, and I think he was in harmony, and I think he was probably feeling okay about everything and Joseph was feeling okay about him, right then. Then, in retrospect, after he got annoyed in 1837 over economic and political affairs, then he remembered this ‘scrape’ between Emma and the idea of having this Fanny connected, cohabitating with Joseph Smith. I think he resurrected that idea and brought it up, then, again. I don’t think it was a major factor for him back in 1835 and 1836. It became a factor for him, again in 1837 when he thought about it, when he no longer felt he was in harmony with Joseph Smith.
GT: Yeah. So, that just became another issue between Oliver and Joseph.
Bruce: It’s become, in the eyes of many people, THE issue, but it’s not.
GT: You don’t think it was the most important issue?
Bruce: No, I don’t think it was.
GT: What was the most important issue?
Bruce: I think it was how they disagreed about what was going on with the bank, and then the animosity settled in. Then, Oliver said, “You’re trying to dictate to us how we’re supposed to live our lives with our property and how we spend our own money and how we buy and sell our property. I won’t stand for that. This is a republic.”
Of course, these divisions carried over to cause problems with the Missourians.
The Danites were a Mormon vigilante group who tried to fight back against Missouri mobocracy. Were they good guys or bad guys? W.W. Phelps & Thomas Marsh both testified about Danite actions in the Mormon-Missouri War in 1838. Both men were lumped in with the apostates and were excommunicated. Dr. Bruce Van Orden is the biographer of W.W. Phelps and says Phelps returned after some time out of the church. We’ll also tackle the Milk and Strippings story in which we are told in Sunday School that Marsh left the church in defense of his wife. Is that true?
GT: I do want to spend a little bit of time. I know John Hamer has written a wonderful post on the Milk and Strippings story. It seems like Thomas Marsh gets a bad rap for that whole episode, and we kind of gloss over the problems in Missouri. What were some of these other issues that Thomas Marsh had?
Bruce: I’ve already said that Phelps was egocentric and sought to excel. It got him in trouble from time to time. I’m not exonerating him from his eccentricities. But I would say that Marsh was motivated by his ego and his desire to excel, even more than Phelps was, and he didn’t have nearly the talent. He did get trained in the printing press business, and he wanted to take over the Church’s periodical that had been started after the Cowderys’ had been cut off, Oliver and Warren Cowdery. They had run the Messenger and Advocate, and so, the Messenger and Advocate died. They created a new newspaper called the Elders’ Journal. But then, that stopped in Kirtland when the Saints had to leave Kirtland. But it was reinstated in Far West, Missouri in the late summer of 1838, the Elders’ journal. It had two issues come out. Marsh wrote some lengthy articles in it, building himself up as a great man and great leader, and helping save the Church from apostasy of other people, including Phelps and all the Whitmers, but also these earlier guys in Kirtland, as well. He wanted to kind of take over the printing operation because he knew it had given Phelps power and influence. He started to do that. But Joseph preferred to have the editor be his younger brother, Don Carlos Smith, and that probably bothered Marsh to a certain extent. Marsh ended up seeing what the Danites were up to.
Bruce: It bothered him and he talked to Joseph Smith about it. Joseph didn’t really know about all of the activities of the Danites because it was secret, and he kind of sloughed it off. Then he [Marsh] saw even more in Daviess County. I guess he was losing influence, anyway. We don’t know all the reasons. He had been offended by this milk stripping issue, although I think that’s a minor event, rather than THE main event.
Bruce: But, as a minor event, it offended him and his family. So, he decided in mid-October 1838, “I’m against Joseph Smith, now.” Then he wrote that affidavit out, giving great detail to what the Danites had done, and attributing it to Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith.
GT: So, you’re saying Joseph really wasn’t aware of the Danite incidents?
Bruce: Well, that’s a historical question about how much he knew. The official version that has come down in sanitized Church History is that Joseph Smith really didn’t know about it, and it was a secret organization, and they did all these bad things. Well, he sanctioned some of their activities. They’re just no denying it. In Daviess County, he was there when they were doing it, and he didn’t stop them. But, how much he knew about the blood oaths and all that, remains to be seen. But it was Sampson Avard, one of the leaders of the Danites, who went state’s evidence on the side of the Missourian charges against Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith and George Robinson and McCray and all those guys who were arrested. The biggest testifier against the church leadership was Sampson Avard, the really dirty guy in the Danites. He went state’s evidence.
We go further into the Danites and the Missouri troubles, and who testified against Danite actions.
W.W. Phelps was one of the best writers in Mormonism. It should come as no surprise that he assisted Joseph Smith in the First Vision account. Dr. Bruce Van Orden gives more details.
Bruce: Officially, Joseph Smith became the editor [of the TImes & Season] for eight months in 1842. But the problem is Joseph Smith never even went to the printing office, except a few times at night to check on newspapers about what they were saying about him, that it come in from the east. Remember, all newspaper offices got newspapers from all over the country, that was just part of the arrangement in those days. He wanted to check about what they were saying about him. He did not play a role in the day-to-day functioning of the editing of the Times and Seasons.
Bruce: I came to the conclusion based on internal evidence and writing styles, and some of the historical evidence that comes from the journals, that Phelps was running the day-to-day operations, then, of the printing of the newspaper. John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff were involved, but, they didn’t do any of the writing. Woodruff did entirely the business operations, and John Taylor was sick some of the time and doing other assignments. He wasn’t even there to run the newspaper, although he was kind of the assistant editor under Joseph Smith. This is the shocking thing that I came up with. It shocked me that that Phelps was actually doing the writing for The Times and Seasons, particularly making sure the content was what he wanted, in the Times and Seasons. Around this time, John Wentworth, a major newspaper editor in Chicago, asked Joseph Smith, if he might produce a history of the Latter-day Saints. The title was Church History. In a letter, Joseph Smith supposedly put together this history. It’s multi page. It was not ever published by Wentworth, but it was published in the Times and Seasons at the upstart of Joseph Smith’s editorship, official editorship of the Times and Seasons. The Wentworth letter includes the First Vision story, the first published story in Joseph Smith’s name. The official 1838 edition had not come out in published form, yet. So, this was the first one.
GT: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
Bruce: It came out later in the Times and Seasons, as part of the official history as Phelps put together, Joseph Smith’s History. He called it that in the Times and Seasons, but this was the first published version by Joseph Smith. However, preceding this version, were printed accounts of the First Vision by both Orson Pratt in Scotland and Orson Hyde in continental Europe, where they described what happened in the First Vision. It’s obvious that some of the same language used by Pratt and Hyde was used in the Wentworth letter account, 1842 account. It’s very obvious to me and it even comes out in the Joseph Smith papers project, that Phelps was Joseph Smith’s assistant in putting together this Wentworth letter. It’s a lengthy history of the Church for those 12 years, including all of the problems in Missouri. It’s obvious that Phelps wrote that part, because he was part of what happened in Jackson County and Clay County and Far West. Joseph wasn’t part of any of that, and it’s in Phelps’ language, his rhetorical style.
We’ll also talk about the elevation of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in 1841, that superseded the role of the High Council.
Bruce: But, when he arrived in Nauvoo, and Don Carlos Smith, had passed away and the editorship of the Times and Seasons fell into the hands of Ebenezer Robinson, who had been a Danite with Sidney Rigdon back in Missouri. He [Ebenezer] now was doing some things that were not pleasing to Joseph Smith and the Twelve. By this time, the Twelve had come back from their mission in Britain and had been instated as leadership over the entire Church by mid-1841. The Twelve were under the First Presidency, over the whole Church. That did happen.
GT: Okay, There was still a High Council, though.
Bruce: A high council, but it was a stake. It was a stake high council, in Nauvoo. There were other stakes. There were several stakes of Zion at that stage of the game.
GT: So essentially, the apostles did take up supremacy over the High Council.
Bruce: Yes. Now, some people argue that William Marks, the president of the high council in Nauvoo had equal authority to the Twelve. He maybe thought he did, but in the succession crisis, he played a role, that’s true. But we now can see that Joseph Smith had placed the Twelve Apostles under the First Presidency and used them in authoritative ways for the rest of his life, from 1841 through 1844, for three years. The Twelve did play a huge role.
We also talk about Phelps role in the Succession Crisis. What are your thoughts of the Missouri Troubles, Danites, and WW Phelps role with succession and the First Vision?
So I’m confused. If Bruce believes JS started his “polygamous “ life with Fanny with the approval of God, but Bruce thinks doing so was a mistake, and the wrong thing to do, then God was approving of JS doing the wrong thing? Man, we Mormons love to #1- blame God for so many things, #2- make God into being incredibly fickle, and #3- you can’t trust God is really giving you a thumbs up when what he really feels is a thumbs down. It’s amazing to me the hoops we jump through to exonerate our prophets of some of their horrendous behavior.
The best attempt I have heard to explain Joseph’s relationship with Fanny (and other relationships besides Emma) was in a podcast interview that I, unfortunately, cannot remember for sure who it was with, but I want to say it was Greg Prince.
Anyway, the person said he thought Joseph fell in love with Fanny (and others) and didn’t know how to interpret those persistent feelings. Joseph truly believed his deep and poignant thoughts were from God, and so he interpreted these strong emotional attractions in the same light. Once he allowed himself to believe these feelings were from God, then the development of polygamy doctrine followed.
(I wish I could remember for sure where I heard that – they were much more eloquent and informed)
My comment is very simple: it’s a dumpster fire.
My problem with the Thomas Marsh reinterpretations is that after he got to Utah he talked to people about the milk strippings story and confirmed it was a pivotal event.
Most people to discuss him gloss over that or insist that they know his story better than he did.
Stephen, would you be willing to point me in the direction of a source that talks about Marsh confirming the importance of the milk strippings incident to his loss of faith? I’d love to read more about that.
Absolute hogwash! The milk stripping theory has been thoroughly debunked.