Highlights from Documents, Volume 7: The Reconciliation of Joseph Smith and William W. Phelps

Documents, Volume 7 covers a period when Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints worked hard to build up Nauvoo, Illinois, as a cornerstone of Zion. Efforts to sell land, construct buildings, and settle the Saints took up much of Smith’s time during these eighteen months. He also expended energy seeking redress from the federal government for the Saints’ expulsion from the state of Missouri, even traveling to Washington DC in fall 1839 and remaining in the surrounding area until March 1840. These efforts were so time-consuming that Smith sent a petition to the Nauvoo high council in June 1840 asking to be relieved of his responsibilities for the Saints’ temporal affairs because he believed his leadership in spiritual matters was suffering.
Yet even with these pressing temporal matters, Joseph Smith still had time to minister to those in need. An example of this is highlighted by two letters in Documents, Volume 7 concerning William W. Phelps’s return to the church in 1840. This story provides insight into Joseph Smith’s character.
Phelps joined the church in 1831 and quickly became one of its primary leaders. In summer 1831, he was instructed to establish a printing office in Independence, Missouri, where the Saints were constructing the city of Zion. Phelps followed these directions and began publishing a church newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star, in Independence. He also worked on publishing the Book of Commandments, a compilation of Joseph Smith’s revelations. In 1834 he was designated as a counselor to David Whitmer in the presidency of the church in Zion. In 1836 he participated in the events surrounding the dedication of the Kirtland temple.
However, Phelps thereafter began to experience some difficulties with the church, mainly over issues with church finances and land in Missouri, and he was excommunicated in 1838. In November of that year, he testified against Joseph Smith and other church leaders charged with treason against the state of Missouri. His testimony helped lead to Smith’s incarceration in the Liberty, Missouri, jail in winter 1838–1839. For a time, Phelps’s actions caused hard feelings between the two men. When Phelps offered in 1839 to sell a mill in Missouri on behalf of Joseph Smith’s father, Smith told Phelps to mind his “own affairs” because Smith had “already experienced much over officiousness at your hand.”[1] Clearly, Phelps’s betrayal hurt Smith.
By summer 1840, Phelps’s feelings about Joseph Smith and the church had changed, and he wrote a letter to Smith on 29 June 1840 from Dayton, Ohio, expressing contrition for his past actions and asking for forgiveness. “I want your fellowship,” Phelps pleaded, and “if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be Sweet.”[2] When Smith received the letter, he was touched by Phelps’s repentance. He wrote back on 22 July, telling Phelps that although he had suffered at Phelps’s hand—“the cup of gall already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us”[3]—he was willing to put the past behind him and embrace Phelps again as a member of the church and as a friend. Paraphrasing a poem by Methodist poet and hymnist Charles Wesley, Smith wrote, “Come on dear Brother since the war is past, / For friends at first are friends again at last.”[4] Phelps joined the church again and remained a diligent member for the rest of his life.
Joseph Smith’s response to William Phelps shows that The Joseph Smith Papers are important not only to understand Smith as a prophet and leader but also to understand him as a human being. We can gain as many insights into Smith’s character and personality as we can into his administrative abilities. To read more, see these letters in Documents, Volume 7 and on josephsmithpapers.org.