19th Century Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

Was William W. Phelps a Ghostwriter for Joseph Smith?

W. W. Phelps is called a “printer unto the church” in Section 57 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Was he also a ghostwriter for the Prophet Joseph Smith?

William W. Phelps was closely associated with many key events in the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was called “a printer unto the church” in D&C 57, and wrote popular hymns like The Spirit of God. According to biographer Bruce A. Van Orden, W. W. Phelps was also a prolific ghostwriter for Joseph Smith.

Learn more. Many scholars believe that W. W. Phelps wrote the poetic form of Section 76 commonly attributed to Joseph Smith.

Why did Bruce Van Orden write a biography about William W. Phelps?

I grew up in a small branch in North Platte, Nebraska. I took piano lessons starting at age nine. I began learning how to play the hymns and was soon used as an accompanist in various church settings. I noticed that W. W. Phelps was the author of many of the most sung hymns in our branch. I love the songs myself. I vowed to learn more about him.

In the summer of 1969, while living the first summer of my marriage to Karen Hoyal at the home of her parents, I became acquainted with the official history of the church, the seven-volume set. I gasped as I learned so much more of Phelps’s early connections with Joseph Smith.

I maintain that W. W. Phelps was the actual ghostwriter for much of the Wentworth Letter.

I entered seminary teaching in 1970 and dived into church history issues and felt ever more connected with Phelps. When I joined the BYU religion faculty in 1986, I vowed to make writing a biography of William W. Phelps among my scholarly contributions.

Why has it taken so long to get a W. W. Phelps biography?

Early in my BYU years, I was involved in other scholarly projects at first, and they also gave me a heavy teaching load. I did get started with research and writing on the Phelps biography in the 1990s, but so many things were happening at church headquarters that discouraged church history writing and research that I stalled and finally stopped.

I thought I was over half done with the book, but when I got back into it four years ago, I discovered that there was so much more available now that digitized items were available to research on my computer. Most of all, I was so pleased with the Joseph Smith Papers project that produced the original documents that I could study carefully and cite appropriately. We have also arrived at a time in our Church when it is appropriate to be transparent in our historical research and writing and allowed me to portray W. W. Phelps in the multiple ways that are appropriate.

I considered numerous publishers, but I finally landed on BYU Religious Studies Center at the recommendation of Alexander Baugh, chair of church history and doctrine at BYU.  They ended up doing a fabulous job of editing and designing. I am so very pleased with the outcome of the publication.

What role did the Joseph Smith Papers play in researching and writing the biography of William Wines Phelps?

A number of people told me that it was better that I waited to finish the biography until recently because of the great value of the Joseph Smith Papers. I totally agree. We no longer need to rely on secondary sources, which is a major plus. I also feel that I have aided the Joseph Smith Papers Project in their future volumes with some of the conclusions I have arrived at.

The folks who work on the Joseph Smith Papers are wonderful people! In terms of memories that are positive are my interactions face-to-face and through email with these fine researchers and historians.

What was one of Bruce Van Orden’s most noteworthy William W. Phelps discoveries?

My most stunning discovery was that W. W. Phelps was the main force at the Nauvoo printing office beginning in January 1842 all the way through 1846 when Nauvoo was abandoned. This is in spite of the widespread belief that Joseph Smith and John Taylor were the acknowledged editors of the newspapers. But it turns out they were only nominal editors and were really engaged primarily in other activities outside the printing office.

It became obvious that Phelps was Joseph Smith’s ghostwriter for numerous articles including major long theological pieces that appeared in the Times and Seasons in 1842 and now appear as Joseph Smith’s writings in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith in 1938. 

I studied carefully all the articles in digitized form from the Times and Seasons, The Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor and was able to determine the hundreds of articles that were actually authored by Phelps, even though they have often been attributed to Joseph Smith or John Taylor.

What attribute of W. W. Phelps does Bruce A. Van Orden most admire—and with which weakness does he sympathize?

I admire most W. W. Phelps’s zeal to build up a Latter-day Zion prepared to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in his second coming. His voluminous writings, frequent poems, and beautiful hymnody emphasize this subject. I think of him every time I sing “Now Let Us Rejoice” and “Redeemer of Israel” and his quest for building Zion.

One of his greatest weaknesses was to exaggerate various things about Joseph Smith and the Kingdom of God. For example, he wrote a tract addressed to voters in Vermont in 1844 that Joseph Smith Sr. had fought in the Revolutionary War and nearly lost his life. This was a complete fabrication. Also, Phelps wrote for publication in 1843 that the Church had 150,000 members in various continents of the earth, and at best the number would only be 35,000 at that time in Illinois, other states, and Britain, where any members at that time resided.

Bruce Van Orden talks about writing a William W. Phelps biography in a lecture at Benchmark Books.

How did William W. Phelps use his skill with words to further the cause of the early Church?

In D&C 57, W. W. Phelps was called as “printer unto the church” and to dedicate his writings to building the Kingdom of God. More than any other man up through 1845, he was the major writer of gospel themes in the church. He was also instrumental in leading the Missouri saints ecclesiastically from 1832 to 1838 and in being one of Joseph Smith’s key scribes.

Consequently, I claim that W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential Latter-day Saints in the Church’s first 15 years.

What inspired William W. Phelps to write ‘The Spirit of God’?

The entirety of “The Spirit of God” was inspired by the spiritual outpourings that occurred in the Kirtland Temple in January 1836 leading up to the eventual dedication March 27, 1836. The powerful experiences are now referred to as the “Kirtland endowment.” Chapter 18 of the biography deals with all these events connected with the Kirtland endowment and the dedication.

There were six original verses to “The Spirit of God.”  Verses four and five (not the last verse) are those no longer included in the hymnbook, although they did appear in the original hymnbook that came out in 1836.  Here they are:

We’ll wash, and be wash’d, and with oil be anointed

                              Withal not omitting the washing of feet:

For he that receiveth his penny appointed,

                              Must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat.

We’ll sing and we’ll shout &c.

Old Israel that fled from the world for his freedom,

                              Must come with the cloud and the pillar, amain[1]:

A Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua lead him,

                              And feed him on manna from heaven again.

We’ll sing and we’ll shout &c.

What role did William W. Phelps play in the translation of the Book of Abraham?

W. W. Phelps’s role with the Book of Abraham is major. The entirety of Chapter 16 of the biography is dedicated to this subject.

In brief, William W. Phelps was a major scribe in Kirtland for the Book of Abraham text. He wrote more than any others including Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Warren Parrish on the alphabet and grammar musings connected with the Egyptian translation project and that are highly controversial today. In 1842, Phelps, now back in Nauvoo, helped Joseph Smith publish the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons.

It appears that Phelps is the author of the preface to the book that even now appears in the standard works.

Many evidences indicate that Phelps influenced that contents of the Book of Abraham. After Joseph Smith died, Phelps continued to publish ideas emanating from the Book of Abraham including the poem that became a hymn: “If You Could Hie to Kolob.”

What do you think Phelps would think of the new history of the Church?

I think Phelps would enjoy reading Saints: The Standard of Truth. He would no doubt chuckle at some of the conclusions that would not be entirely correct, but he would also realize that the historians who wrote this new volume were doing their best using the evidence that they had access to.

He would really get a kick out of the fact that “The Standard of Truth” emphasis in the title for Volume 1 and excerpts from the same quotation from “The Wentworth Letter” that will be used for subtitles for Volumes 2, 3 and 4 were from something he actually wrote.

I maintain that W. W. Phelps was the actual ghostwriter for much of the Wentworth Letter, including stunningly the following:

Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany, Palestine, New Holland, the East Indies, and other places, the standard of truth has been erected: no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing, persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

What are some hidden gems from We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of WW Phelps?

From Chapter 31, the last chapter, entitled “Prolific Hymnist”:

W. Phelps penned twenty-five hymns entirely by himself.[2] More surprisingly, he adapted in various ways another thirty-seven pieces, making sixty-two in all where his words are part of the hymn texts!

Following are Phelps’s original hymns in A Collection of Sacred Hymns (those currently sung hymns in italics):

  1. 7: “See All Creation Join.”[3]
  2. 18: “Now Let Us Rejoice.”[4]
  3. 20: “My Soul is Full of Peace and Love.”[5]
  4. 22: “The Great and Glorious Gospel Light.”[6]
  5. 23: “The Earth was Once a Garden Place” (“Adam-ondi-Ahman”).[7]
  6. 24: “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain.”[8]
  7. 26: “Now We’ll Sing with One Accord.”[9]
  8. 28: “The Sun that Declines in the Far Western Sky.”[10]
  9. 29: “The Towers of Zion Shall Soon Rise.”[11]
  10. 30: “Let All the Saints Their Hearts Prepare.”[12]
  11. 31: “Let Us Pray, Gladly Pray.”[13]
  12. 32: “Awake, O Ye People! The Savior is Coming.”[14]
  13. 33: “What Wond’rous Things We Now Behold.”[15]
  14. 35: “There’s a Feast of Fat Things.”[16]
  15. 41: “Awake! for the Morning is Come.”[17]
  16. 43: “Come Let Us Sing an Evening Hymn.”[18]
  17. 50: “Farewell, Our Friends and Brethren.”[19]
  18. 57: “O God th’eternal Father.”[20]
  19. 62: “When Earth was Dress’d in Beauty.”[21]
  20. 63: “O Stop and Tell Me, Red Man.”[22]
  21. 68: “Come All Ye Saints, Who Dwell on Earth.”[23]
  22. 69: “God Spake the Word, and Time Began.”[24]
  23. 72: “Before This Earth from Chaos Sprung.”[25]
  24. 76: “In Ancient Days Men Fear’d the Lord.”[26]
  25. 90: “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning.”[27]

What event would Bruce Van Orden most like to witness from the life of William W. Phelps?

I would love to observe all of W. W. Phelps’s life activities. In so many ways, I feel I was there with him in the 1830s and 1840s.

I guess I would first choose the time he went to Boston in 1847 to obtain a new press for the church that would be used in the new colony in the west. While there, he had three young women sealed to him in polygamy. But when Brigham Young saw what had happened when they met up at Winter Quarters, Phelps was excommunicated again, this for the third time in his life. But he was re-baptized two days later. He only held on to one of these wives—Sarah Betsina Gleason Phelps.

I would have enjoyed observing all these interesting events.

Further reading

W. W. Phelps resources

Interview sources

[1] “Amain” means “with full force.”

[2] Seventeen of these were published by Phelps in The Evening and the Morning Star and the Messenger and Advocate between 1832 and 1836.  He did not publish eight others in newspapers, but they bear all the stylistic markings of Phelps’s poems/hymns.  Furthermore, no other authors are ever mentioned as possibilities for these eight hymns.

[3] EMS, 1 (August 1832):8.

[4] EMS, 1 (March 1833):8.

[5] EMS, 2 (June 1833):8.

[6] EMS, 2 (July 1833):8.

[7] M&A, 1 (June 1835):144.

[8] M&A, 1 (June 1835):144.

[9] M&A, 1 (October 1835):208.

[10] M&A, 1 (October 1835):208.

[11] EMS, 2 (December 1833):120.

[12] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in two subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals.  It bears all the Phelpsian stylistics.

[13] EMS, 2 (April 1834):152.

[14] EMS, 2 (April 1834):152.

[15] EMS, 2 (May 1834):160; M&A, 3 (October 1836):400.

[16] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals and was identified as being written by W. W. Phelps.

[17] M&A, 1 (July 1835):159.

[18] M&A, 1 (August 1835):176.

[19] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in seven subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals and was attributed eventually to W. W. Phelps.

[20] M&A, 1 (July 1835):160.

[21] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in one subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnal.  It bears all the Phelpsian stylistics.

[22] M&A, 1 (December 1834):34.

[23] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in three subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals and was attributed eventually to W. W. Phelps.

[24] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in six subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals and was attributed quickly to W. W. Phelps.

[25] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in six subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals.  It bears all the Phelpsian stylistics.

[26] This hymn is not published in any newspapers, but it came out in six subsequent Latter-day Saint hymnals.  It bears all the Phelpsian stylistics.

[27] M&A, 2 (January 1836):256.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “Was William W. Phelps a Ghostwriter for Joseph Smith?”

I believe that the main source of the Wentworth Letter were the articles of faith written by Orson Pratt in 1840 in his “An Interesting Account Of Several Visions” pamphlet.

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