W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its first 15 years, according to Bruce Van Orden. His contributions stand alongside those of Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and Heber C. Kimball.
Van Orden is a professor emeritus of church history and doctrine at BYU and the author of the new book “We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps,” co-published by Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book.
Decades in the making, the biography came to fruition when essential research was made available through the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Van Orden uses a treasure trove of research material to present a fascinating portrait of the man perhaps best known for writing the hymn “The Spirit of God.”
“We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout” highlights five themes from Phelps’ life, ranging from the early disciple’s writing contributions to his close relationship with the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“W. W. Phelps was exceptionally close to the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Van Orden writes in the book’s introduction. “Much closer than previously acknowledged and appreciated.”
The closeness of this relationship is highlighted as Van Orden guides readers through contributions made by Phelps in his role characterized in Doctrine and Covenants 57:11 as a “printer unto the church.”
Van Orden also tackles one of the hardest aspects of historical biography, namely providing readers with insight into the personality of the subject. In this regard, Van Orden presents Phelps as a passionate and peculiar man with plenty of failures to register alongside his successes. The love of Phelps for his wife, Sally, also shines a light on the heart of this important individual who figures prominently in so much of early church history.
Phelps largely faded from memory after the 1860s, but his contributions nonetheless remain essential to understanding the early history of the church.
“William Wines Phelps deserves more attention than he has received,” Van Orden writes.
*This article originally appeared in the Deseret News.