W. W. Phelps (Mormon)

W. W. Phelps
Personal details
Born William Wines Phelps
(1792-02-17)February 17, 1792
Hanover Township, New Jersey
Died March 17, 1872(1872-03-17) (aged 80)
Salt Lake City, Utah Territory
Resting place Salt Lake City Cemetery
40°46′37″N 111°51′29″W / 40.777°N 111.858°W / 40.777; -111.858 (Salt Lake City Cemetery)
Occupation Church printer
Title Scribe to Joseph Smith, composer of numerous LDS hymns
Spouse(s) Stella Waterman
Parents Enon Phelps
Mehitable Goldsmith

William Wines Phelps (February 17, 1792 – March 7, 1872) was an early leader of the Latter Day Saint movement. He printed the first edition of the Book of Commandments and wrote numerous hymns that became standard works of the church. He was at times both close to and at odds with church leadership. He testified against Joseph Smith, providing evidence that helped persuade authorities to arrest Smith. He was excommunicated three times and rejoined the church each time. He was a ghost writer for Joseph Smith and was called by Smith to serve as assistant president of the church in Missouri.[Footnote] He served on the Council of Fifty. After the prophet's murder, he supported Brigham Young as the new prophet.

Early life

Born in Hanover Township, New Jersey, his father, Enon Phelps, and mother, Mehitable Goldsmith, moved the family to Homer, New York, in 1800. Phelps was a descendant of the Puritan founder, William Phelps.[1] As a child, Phelps attended public schools. As a young man, he traveled to Ohio, but soon returned to Homer, where he began publishing the Western Courier.

On April 28, 1815, he married Stella Waterman (later called Sally). He next moved to Trumansburgh, Tompkins County, New York, where in 1823 he founded the Lake Light. In 1827, he relocated to Canandaigua, New York, where he began publishing and edited the anti-Masonic newspaper Ontario Phoenix through 1828. Phelps was described by Dean Jessee as "one of [the] founders" of the anti-Masonic movement in New York.[1]:650–651

Joins early Latter Day Saint church

Self well educated as a young man, Phelps wanted to seek the office lieutenant governor of New York.[2] He purchased a copy of the Book of Mormon on April 9, 1830just three days after the church was organized as the Church of Christ.[3][4] Phelps met Smith on December 24, 1830, and was convinced he was a prophet. On April 29, 1831, Phelps was imprisoned at Lyons, New York, by a "couple of Presbyterian traders, for a small debt, for the purpose, as I was informed, of 'keeping me from joining the Mormons.'"[5]

Phelps visited Kirtland in 1831, was baptized on June 10, 1831, and established a print house in Independence, Missouri, where he published the Evening and Morning Star. On July 20, 1833, while working to publish the church's Book of Commandments, a mob of vigilantes attacked Phelps's home, seized the printing materials, destroyed many papers, destroyed the press, and threw his family and furniture out of doors.[6][7]

Phelps was present near Jackson County, Missouri, on July 17, 1831, when, according to Phelps's later testimony, Smith received the first revelation about plural marriage.[8]

Joins church leadership

In the early part of 1835, Phelps and his son, Waterman, were called to Kirtland, where they resided with Smith's family temporarily and joined a committee appointed to compile the Doctrine and Covenants. About this time, Phelps subscribed US$500 toward the erection of the Kirtland Temple. Phelps was the author of eleven popular early Latter Day Saint hymns. In Kirtland, he helped print the first Latter Day Saint hymnal in 1835, which included "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning", which was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. He was also instrumental in printing the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

From 1834 to 1838, Phelps was a counselor to David Whitmer in the presidency of the church in Missouri and in that capacity he helped found the town of Far West, Missouri. Phelps was called before the High Council on March 10, 1838 when he was accused of profiting from Far West land deals and reneging on a US$2,000 subscription to "the house of the Lord" that was not paid. On March 17, he was excommunicated from the church. In June 1838, Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Lyman E. Johnson were warned out of Far West "or a more fatal calamity shall befall you."[9]

Excommunicated and rebaptized

Unlike Cowdery and the Whitmers, Phelps remained in Far West after "the dissenters" were warned to leave in June 1838. He appears to have had a short-lived détente with the church leadership, and on July 8, 1838, Smith received a revelation saying that Phelps and fellow dissenter, Frederick G. Williams, could be ordained as elders and serve missions abroad. At the time of the Mormon surrender of Far West, Phelps was one of the Mormon negotiators.[10] But during the Richmond hearings of November 1838, Phelps was one of several who bore witness against Smith and other leaders, aiding in their imprisonment in Missouri until April 1839. This led to his excommunication in Quincy on March 17, 1839.[10] In June 1840, Phelps pleaded for forgiveness in a letter to Smith. Smith replied with an offer of full fellowship, and ended with a variant of Charles Wesley's couplet, "'Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first are friends again at last.'"[11]

Phelps served a brief mission in the eastern United States in 1841. Phelps moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. where on August 27, 1841, he replaced Robert B. Thompson (who had died) as Smith's clerk. Beginning in February 1843, Phelps became the ghostwriter of many of Smith's important written works of the Nauvoo period, including "General Joseph Smith's Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys" of November 1843; Smith's theodemocratic presidential platform of January 1844; and "The Voice of Innocence", which was presented to and unanimously approved by the Relief Society in February 1844 to rebut claims of polygamy in Nauvoo arising out of Orsimus Bostwick's lawsuit accusing Hyrum Smith of polygamy and other sexual misconduct with the women of Nauvoo.[12]

Phelps was endowed on December 9, 1843,[13] received his "second anointing" promising him godhood on February 2, 1844,[14] and was also made a member of the Council of Fifty.[15] In Nauvoo, Phelps spoke out in favor of the destruction of an opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. He believed that the city charter gave the church leaders power to declare the newspaper a nuisance. Shortly afterwards, the press and type were carried into the street and destroyed. Phelps was summoned to be tried a witness at the treason hearing of Smith at Carthage, Illinois.

During the succession crisis in 1844, Phelps sided with Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve. He was excommunicated for the third time on December 9, 1847, for entering into an unauthorized polygamous marriage, but was rebaptized two days later.[16] Phelps took part in the Mormon Exodus across the Great Plains and settled in Salt Lake City in 1849. He served a mission in southern Utah Territory (as counselor to Parley P. Pratt) from November 1849 to February 1850. There he served in the Utah territorial legislature and on the board of regents for the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). Phelps died on March 7, 1872, in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. He was buried at Salt Lake City Cemetery.


Phelps is probably best known for his legacy of Mormon hymns, many of which appear in the current edition of the LDS Church hymnal.[17]

Phelps also reworded popular hymns turning them into uniquely Latter Day Saint hymns.

* Included in the first Latter Day Saint hymnal in 1835.

See also



  1. 1 2 Phelps, Oliver Seymour; Servin, Andrew T. (1899). The Phelps Family of America and their English Ancestors. Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Eagle Publishing Company.
  2. Walter Dean Bowen, "The Versatile W.W. PhelpsMormon Writer, Educator, and Pioneer," M.S. thesis, Brigham Young University (1958): 22.
  3. "Minutes of a Conference" Archived 2014-05-21 at the Wayback Machine., Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2, no. 20, p. 160 (May 1832)
  4. The Deseret News, 11 April 1860, pp. 45, 48.
  5. "William W. Phelps (1792–1872)". Mormon History 1830-1844. Saints Without Halos. Archived from the original on 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  6. "William W. Phelps: Printer unto the Church". historyofmormonism.com. Retrieved 2018-01-17.
  7. F., Price, Lynn (1997). Every person in the Doctrine and Covenants. Bountiful, Utah: Horizon. ISBN 9780882905976. OCLC 37451290.
  8. W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young, 12 Aug. 1861, LDS Church archives, quoted in Fred C. Collier, comp., Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Collier's Publishing Co., 1979), 57–58.
  9. Richard S. Van Wagoner (1994). Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books) pp. 218–19.
  10. 1 2 Alexander L. Baugh. "A Community Abandoned: W. W. Phelps' 1839 Letter to Sally Waterman Phelps from Far West, Missouri." Nauvoo Journal, 10:2, 1998. p. 23/
  11. Richard Green, Works of John and Charles Wesley, accessed on books.google.com 12/7/2013; letter July 22, 1840, from Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois, in History of the Church, vol.4, pp. 162–64.
  12. Samuel Brown, The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and William Phelps," Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (2008): 26–62.
  13. Anderson & Bergera 2005, p. 41
  14. Anderson & Bergera 2005, pp. 63–64
  15. Quinn, D. Michael (1980), "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945", BYU Studies, 20 (2): 163–98, archived from the original on 2013-10-21
  16. Historical Department Journal, Vol. 9 p. 25. ""Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-11-16. Retrieved 2016-05-12."
  17. "Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". Archived from the original on 2012-10-25. Retrieved 2009-10-20.


Category:American hymnwriters

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