(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.”