In 1845, William Smith, Mormon apostles waged low-key war in the LDS press

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) There’s an interesting article in the new summer 2013 issue of the “Journal of Mormon History.” Christine Elyse Blythe has contributed a long article on the tenure of William Smith as church patriarch. William is generally considered in LDS history as a kind of “bad boy” of the Smiths, a “legacy apostle” who survived in the church while elder brother Joseph Smith was alive but was eventually kicked out of the church after he died.

There’s a lot of history in the article, “William Smith’s Patriarchal Blessings and Contested Authority in the Post-Martyrdom Church,” but what caught my interest was an intramural newspaper feud over who was best to lead the church a year after Joseph Smith had been murdered. William Smith, despite already shaky relationships with Brigham Young and the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, was named Presiding Patriarch of the LDS Church. It was a lucrative gig for Smith. Besides the high authority of being the church patriarch, William earned a buck per patriarchal blessing, according to Blythe. That doesn’t sound like much, but after 300 blessings over six months, William had earned roughly what a full-time laborer of that era would earn over half a year.

(I digress here to tell readers that receiving a patriarchal blessing is a rite of passage for faithful Latter-day Saints. Those born into an active LDS family usually receive a blessing, from a local patriarch, at the age of 15 or 16. The blessings are considered revelation from God. Indeed, many blessings are described as part of blessings one received in the pre-existence prior to birth. The blessings also provide a relationship to the recipient of their place in the House of Israel.)

In Smith’s time, the presiding patriarch of the LDS Church was considered an elite leader, comparable in rank to an apostle or prophet. Hyrum Smith had preceded William Smith as patriarch. As Blythe recounts, a careful reading of many of William Smith’s patriarchal blessings include words from Smith that assigned him as the LDS leader with the highest authority. As Blythe writes, “… in a blessing given to William A. Beebe, the patriarch concluded: ‘by the highest authority in the church of God I seal thee up to eternal life ...’ This phrase, ‘highest authority in the church’ appeared six times in William’s patriarchal blessings in just over one month.”

Patriarchal blessings, while recorded, are considered personal, and — as Blythe notes — it’s possible the subtle hints in William Smith’s blessings did not get much notice. However, William Smith made his intentions public with an essay in the LDS Church newspaper “Times and Seasons.” In the essay, “Patriarchal,” Blythe notes that William Smith cast himself as “a living martyr,” worthy of continuing in the same high, prophetic place in the post-martyrdom church as his slain brothers, Joseph and Hyrum.

William Smith’s essay was boosted by a testimonial to his claims by W.W. Phelps, an assistant editor at “Times and Seasons.” Phelps, who eventually followed Brigham Young to Utah, wrote that William is “governed by the spirit of the living God.” As Blythe notes, that phrase suggested an autonomy for Smith as patriarch. That was not a trial balloon that the LDS church’s leadership wanted out there.

So, as Blythe notes, Apostle John Taylor penned a rebuttal in the very next issue in the “Times and Seasons.” What Taylor focused on was the debate over whether William Smith was the “patriarch over the church” or “patriarch to the church.” Taylor was direct and to the point in letting church members know the answer. He wrote: “We have been asked, ‘Does not patriarch over the whole church’ place Brother William Smith at the head of the whole church as president? Ans. No. Brother William is not patriarch over the whole church; but patriarch TO the church, and as such he was ordained. The expression ‘over the whole church,’ is a mistake made by W.W. Phelps.”

Taylor, who of course was speaking for Brigham Young and the rest of the Quorum, made it clear what pecking order William Smith had to follow to remain in the Mormon faith. Nevertheless, William Smith remained in the church a while longer. Blythe notes that he gave nine “second blessings” as patriarch, an indicator that the publicity in “Times and Seasons” had boosted his claim.

But it was a matter of time before William Smith and the LDS Church, under Young and the Apostles, would have a divorce. Blythe relates that later in 1845, William Smith trumpeted a claim from Lucy Mack Smith, his mother, that she had had a revelation, with God saying “Thy son William he shall have power over the Churches …” and “… The presidency of the Church belongs to William ...” Soon afterward, Lucy Mack Smith clarified the “revelation,” saying it was just for her family. Around that time, William Smith threatened to leave the Mormons and take all the Smiths with him, adds Blythe. Smith later retracted that threat as well. By August, as Blythe notes, William Smith was complaining that “There seems to be a severe influence working against me and the Smith family in this place.”

Smith left the Mormons, was excommunicated and, like many other Mormon leaders who didn’t go to Utah, hopscotched among different branches of Mormonism. He tried a position with the James J. Strang “Strangites,” and later started his own church for a while, and had an alliance with the Lyman Wight branch in Texas. All that ended and improbably, William Smith was rebaptized as a Mormon in 1860. That failed to last as well. Eventually, Smith became a member of the Reorganized LDS church. Although the uncle tried to persuade his nephew, church leader Joseph Smith III to make him an apostle or presiding patriarch, he was unsuccessful. William Smith died in 1893.

The very short intramural newspaper battle between Smith, a sort of populist threat to the church led by Young and the apostles, and the rebuttal by John Taylor, which more or less ended Smith’s effort to become a Mormon leader, is fascinating to me as a journalist. Try to imagine today’s prominent Latter-day Saints waging a public relations battle — against each other — in “The Mormon Times,” “Church News,” or “The Ensign.”

It would never happen, of course. But it did 168 years ago, and it must have made for eager reading by Latter-day Saints.

Another excellent source for William Smith’s short tenure as LDS church patriarch is the summer 1983 issue of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.”


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12 Responses to In 1845, William Smith, Mormon apostles waged low-key war in the LDS press

  1. Bob Becker says:

    My thanks for paragraph three. Other than understanding “blessing” in a general sort of way (“Bless you, child.” “The Blessing of The Fleet” in shrimping towns.), I hadn’t a clue what particular meaning LDS-ers gave to a “patriarchal blessing.”. And understanding that matters for the rest of the column.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Thanks Bob, I have had others, notably reader Michael Trujillo, call me on not explaining the Mormon-centric terms in a reader-friendly manner. … My oldest daughter recently received her patriarchal blessing, at 15, from a stake patriarch who lives less than a half-mile from our home.

  2. David H. says:

    That was fascinating. I’m glad our sister church, thr Community of Christ (formerly RLDS), had the good sense not to let him in any position of leadership. To this day I (a Mormon) admire them. Even more so now! Joseph Smith III was a wise leader of their church.

  3. ScottH says:

    The life of William Smith is a fascinating field of study. His quick temper and willingness to back up his words with his fists were well known while his brother Joseph was still alive. More than once he was at odds with Joseph and was subject to official church discipline. Joseph personally put William in his place a number of times. But William also had a history of eventually cooling down and reconciling. (This process sometimes took a very long time.)

    It should not be surprising that this pattern continued after Joseph’s death; albeit, with more sharpness due to the lack of familial bonds with post-martyrdom church leaders. Nor should it be surprising that church members and church leaders themselves were sometimes unsure of how to deal with the situation and how to regard members of the Smith clan. All involved parties were tracking in uncharted territory.

    For those unaware of current LDS practices, it might help to note that LDS patriarchs no longer receive any remuneration for the blessings they give.

    • hawg says:

      “His quick temper and willingness to back up his words with his fists”

      sounds like a plain city meeting

  4. Leonard says:

    I certainly would have missed the intention in the phrase “by the highest authority in the church of God…” thinking that the highest authority is the Melchizedek priesthood. If he had not used these phrases before in those type of blessings, this would certainly signal a change in direction of his thinking, but one would have had to be following it. Hind site is 20/20.

    I wouldn’t blame William Smith for his intentions at the time. It was an unusual period in LDS history. An uncertainty of successor-ship that we know today goes to the senior apostle. A similar burst of articles and interested readers might happen today if some catastrophe wiped out 3/5′s of the apostles or (and more likely) the senior apostle passed on his right to the office of president.

  5. Brother John says:

    The church has always had it’s share of interesting and even difficult personalities. It doesn’t always mean that their intentions are to undermine the mission of the church. I am hardly qualified to witness for or against William Smith, but I think you missed some important elements of context in your criticism of him.
    For example, your criticism of his use of the phrase “highest authority of the church” fails to take into account the relationship of priesthoods, offices, and keys. Priesthood is the only authority in the church. The highest priesthood is the Melchizedek Priesthood. This is the authority by which patriarchs deliver patriarchal blessings. Therefore, Brother Smith spoke the truth when he declared his authority the highest in the church. Prophet, apostle, and patriarch are priesthood offices. Prophets, apostles, and presidents of priesthood quorums hold priesthood keys. Patriarch is a priesthood office that holds no keys, but functions under the direction of those who hold keys; the President of the Church in William Smith’s case and the Stake President in our day. Given this understanding of priesthood, offices, and keys it would appear that William Smith did not overstate his authority or diminish that of his leaders.

  6. Pingback: 23 July 2013 | MormonVoices

  7. hawg says:

    “His quick temper and willingness to back up his words with his fists were well known”

    and carries on today in plain city it seems

    • hawg says:

      ooops, didn’t mean too mention it twice. if it’s not funny the first time, twice won’t do it.
      (it’s those damn unreadable secret code words)

  8. Howard says:

    In 1838 MS Gov Liman Boggs waged war in the Missouri newspapers with “Extermination Order 44″
    In 1882 Miles Park Romney waged war in his paper “Orion Era” in St John’s AZ; opposed by writers for the Apache Chief newspaper. Skipping Bail he headed to Mexico making Mitt ineligible to run for US President.

  9. tx6t2d39vl says:

    ll’altra parte era enorme , anche se io non ricordo di commentare uno scrittore che dopo 50 anni a washington , non era mai stato offerto un lavoro . . . okay, i ‘ d farlo , mi alzai e . . . ack ! un corrispondente da tempo arrivato a lui per primo. il corrispondente ha avuto vecchio lavoro di carney , e si attesta intorno a ridere di qualche dentro potrei competere con un reunionokay timeontime , psaki – no , era stata sciamarono , e sembrava che stesse per essere richiamato su una pressa riser per fare un colloquio hit.axelrod cavo era anche occupato , firmando autografi e posando per le foto . l’ultima volta che ho parlato con axelrod – in uno sitdown me e altri due ha dato da buzzfeed
    esso la sec degli stati uniti boumlrsenaufsicht . siemens è stata gegangenein il hasardeurakt usboumlrse come lo è oggi , perché da nessuna parte sono schaumlrfer le guardie . e ‘ in america, ora al houmlhe le pene per la corruzione e bilanzfaumllschung , schaumltzkurs correnti: due miliardi di dollari . ed è lì per ordine moumlgliche tiene la mano oumlffentlichen , ma il costano ancora molto di più di miliardi di besaumlnftigen la sec , il consiglio di sorveglianza siemens è stato impostato non solo un groszligteil suo vecchio fuumlhrungsriege prima della tuumlr , ma anche l’american studio legale debevoise amp plimpton portato in casa come aufklaumlrer . che permettono loro note tassa eva
    UGG Ultra Tall
    o di domenica dipinge prontamente orrori diewand : l’uso militaumlrische di antimateria è moumlglich.wir undwissenschaft sono al confine tra fantascienza , schwaumlrmte il cernpressesprecher neil calder . wennich uumlber parlando quark e gluoni , i giornalisti messi su dopo due minuti . di antimateria non koumlnnen abbastanza bekommen.das non è sorprendente. per il raumltselstoff , rintracciare i fisici demdie sono , da decenni reichlich_ ( ) _ ( materia / antimateria reattore iniezione) _ ( dal manuale tecnico del ) _ ( serie di fantascienza star trek . ) alimentazione fuumlr spekulationen.was fantasiose contano sempre ricercatore altro nel loro unità hochgeruumlstetenlaboratorien , simile al noto gioco co
    uso di grassi animali in allattamento sono pertanto vietate – contro anf ngliche preoccupazioni dei ministri dell’agricoltura funke.lautes lamento sulla perdita ora che la bse non è negare , in germania , c’è un lamento grande sopra perdite ftliche gesch . il mercato delle carni bovine in baviera , per esempio , è crollato nel giro di pochi giorni : il numero di macellazione è diminuito del per cento , gli agricoltori hanno spiegato sen per un animale di midollo venduto meno di quanto non fosse qualche timore wochen.aus di bse h tten per cento dei tedeschi loro ern valuta convertito , dasmeinungsforschungsinstitut forsa determinato per le riviste max ogni secondo consumano assolutamente non più carne
    UGG Ultra Tall

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