William Wines Phelps (usually known as W. W. Phelps) is probably most often thought of in conjunction with some of the most beloved hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Praise to the Man,” “The Spirit of God,” “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain,” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are just a few of the fifteen hymns that he wrote that appear in the current hymnal. But there was so much more to his life, and Bruce Van Orden, an emeritus professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, has been researching it for decades. This research was recently given a boost by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which gave greater access to materials that Phelps was involved with.
There is little known about Phelps’s early life, or where and how he was educated, but he grew into a very intelligent and articulate man. He joined the Church in 1831 at age 39, and his talents were immediately put to use. He served in church leadership councils, including the Council of Fifty (it was he that coined the term “theodemocracy”); he was a writer, poet, and printer, and actually did more ghostwriting for Joseph Smith than was previously realized. He was also very much a family man, as well as a close friend of Joseph (again, moreso than has previously been understood). This book concentrates on these facets of his life.
Reading this book is essentially reading the history of the church, up through the early 1850s (when his mental state began to deteriorate), as he was very much involved. He was excommunicated three times, but always rebaptized (the third time was for taking on plural wives without specific permission and the rebaptism was a mere two days later). Phelps was with Joseph Smith in over 100 meetings and was involved in events occurring in Jackson County, Clay County, Kirtland, Far West, Adam-ondi-Ahman, and Nauvoo. He also accompanied Brigham Young’s party to the Salt Lake Valley, explored Utah Valley (giving Mount Nebo its name), and was involved with the Deseret Alphabet.
Some of Phelps’s biggest contributions to the church were through writing and printing. He assisted Emma in creating the first hymn book, which contained 25 (out of 90) hymns that he authored. He adapted (Joseph Smith called it “correcting” rather than “adapting”) 37 Protestant hymns that were included. He was the editor of The Evening and Morning Star (probably writing all the editorials), as well as Times and Seasons (ghostwriting more than 25 articles for Joseph), The Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor. He is also thought to have had a hand in the Wentworth Letter, along with Orson Pratt.
In Kirtland, Phelps was a scribe for the Book of Abraham at the same time he was working on the Doctrine and Covenants and hymnbook. He was also heavily involved in studying the papyri. The Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language was mostly written in his hand. Acting as de facto editor of the Times and Seasons, he published the Book of Abraham and wrote the preface indicating it to be “the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon Papyrus.” (Van Orden points out that this statement is not actually part of the scriptural text.)
There is an entire chapter devoted to this topic, with Van Orden noting that his “personal conclusion is that Phelps added many of his own concepts to the Egyptian alphabet and grammar after Joseph Smith started the process. I feel that as Joseph Smith got further along with the translation of the Book of Abraham, especially during the Nauvoo period, he no longer used the Egyptian alphabet and grammar for any purpose. In any event, it is not canonized and in no way represents doctrine of the LDS Church” (page 197).
Phelps’s hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” draws from the Book of Abraham, but goes beyond it. It is thought that the further information it contains may have come from private conversations between him and Joseph. He also could have come up with them on his own, or been influenced by Orson Pratt. Regardless, “Phelps himself helped instill among the Latter-day Saints a love for the esoteric and uplifting doctrines found in the Book of Abraham” (page 199).
In the parts about Phelps’s relationship with his wife and children, Van Orden points out his sexism (by today’s standards) and his strict, puritanical nature. I felt that he was engaging in presentism, and indeed on page 184 he discusses this: “But that is a manifestation of ‘presentism,’ which is defined as ‘uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.’ Phelps’s attitudes are extreme according to present-day values, but he was closer to the mainstream for his day” (page 184).
Under Joseph Smith’s direction, Phelps wrote a 12-page pamphlet that outlined the platform upon which Joseph ran for president. This included the well-known statement that “Slavery should be abolished; federal funds from the sale of public lands or by reducing the salary of congressmen should be used to pay a reasonable fee for slaveholders to free their slaves” (page 352). He also wrote editorials promoting Joseph’s campaign that ran in the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor. In addition, he wrote or ghostwrote 24 articles for other venues.
The chapter titled “Martyrdom and Succession” outlines what are thought to be the various circumstances leading up to the martyrdom, including the trouble with the Law brothers and plural marriage, the Nauvoo Expositor, political problems, and anti-Masonry and anti-Mormon influences. After the martyrdom, Phelps temporarily took one of the leading rules in both ecclesiastical and political affairs, urging the Saints to be faithful and peaceful and corresponding with Governor Ford, as well as being the speaker at the funeral. At this time he wrote a poem called “Joseph Smith” that ended up being the hymn known as “Praise to the Man.”
Phelps played an interesting role in the meeting of August 8, 1844, where Brigham Young spoke in response to Sidney Rigdon’s attempt to become guardian of the church, and “a miracle that reportedly took place in the eyes of hundreds present indicated that the prophetic mantle had passed from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young.” Rigdon wanted to make a rebuttal but was unable to speak, so he asked Phelps to speak for him, expecting his full support. “Phelps’s address ended up being the second most important speech of that day because his opinions meant much to those who knew how close he’d been to Joseph Smith. Phelps rejected Rigdon outright and sustained the Twelve as having the keys to proceed forward” (page 386).
For several possible reasons, Phelps was convinced that Joseph Smith had promised that neither he nor his wife Sally would ever taste of death. Oliver Huntington told how this was fulfilled: “Before Brother Phelps died he lost his judgment, lost all his mind, reason, consciousness and all sense. He knew nothing, not even his name, nor how to eat, thus being unable to taste of anything; not even death. His mind gradually dwindled, withered and dried up” (page 485). And Sally seems to have had the promise fulfilled as well, again according to Huntington: “His [Phelps’s] wife was killed instantly, so quickly that she had no time to taste of death. She was killed as she was dipping up a bucket of water from the ditch, a gust of wind hurled a board from a house and it struck her on the neck breaking it instantly. She never tasted of death nor even felt the blow” (page 491, footnote 108).
This review would not be complete without including a sample of Phelps’s lesser-known poetry. Here are some verses from “The Answer” about Joseph Smith’s vision of 1832 that became Doctrine and Covenants 76 (there are 78 in total, 16 of them are in the book; the verses were numbered by Phelps):
11. I, Joseph, the prophet, in spirit beheld,
And the eyes of the inner man truly did see
Eternity sketch’d in a vision from God,
Of what was, and now is, and yet is to be.
12. Those things which the Father ordained of old,
Before the world was, or a system had run,-
Through Jesus the Maker and Savior of all;
The only begotten, (Messiah) his son.
13. Of whom I bear record, as all prophets have,
And the record I bear is the fullness, -yea even
The truth of the gospel of Jesus – the Christ,
With whom I covers’d, in the vision of heav’n
32. The myst’ry of Godliness truly is great;-
The past, and the present, and what is to be;
And this is the gospel – glad tidings to all,
Which the voice from the heavens bore record to me:
33. That he came to the world in the middle of time,
To lay down his life for his friends and his foes,
And bear away sin as a mission of love;
And sanctify earth for a blessed repose.
34. ‘Tis decreed, that he’ll save all the work of his hands,
And sanctify them by his own precious blood
And purify earth for the Sabbath of rest
By the agent of fire, as it was by the flood.
43. For these overcome, by their faith and their works,
Being tried in their life-time, as purified gold,
And seal’d by the spirit of promise, to life,
By men called of God, as was Aaron of old.
44. They are they, of the church of the first born of God,-
And unto whose hands he committeth all things;
For they hold the keys of the kingdom of heav’n,
And reign with the Savior, as priests, and as kings.
45. They’re priests of the order of Melchisedek,
Like Jesus, (from whom is this highest reward,)
Receiving a fulness of glory and light;
As written: They’re Gods; even sons of the Lord.
46. So all things are theirs; yea, of life, or of death;
Yea, whether things now, or to come, all are theirs,
And they are the Savior’s, and he is the Lord’s,
Having overcome all, as eternity’s heirs.
77. But the great things of God, which he show’d unto me,
Unlawful to utter, I dare not declare;
They surpass all the wisdom and greatness of men,
And only are seen, as has Paul, where they are.
78. I will go, I will go, while the secret of life,
Is blooming in heaven, and blasting in hell;
Is leaving on earth, and a budding in space:-
I will go, I will go, with you, brother, farewell.
The author’s stated intent was to “place Phelps back into his appropriate standing in the early church” as much more than a hymn writer (page 508). I believe this objective has been met. I learned many new things about him, and developed a more profound respect for the man I had really only known before as the writer of one of my favorite hymns, “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Anyone interested in learning more about church history or the development of church doctrine should enjoy reading this book.
Thanks to this book, W. W. Phelps is more than just a name hidden in the hymnal. Phelps was a husband, father, editor, printer, poet, Latter-day Saint, and friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Favorite hymns such as "The Spirit of God," "Praise to the Man," and "If You Could Hie to Kolob" have deeper meaning and significance now that I understand the talents and peculiarities of the man behind the lyrics. Bruce Van Orden did a magnificent job of presenting Phelps's life; his prose is easy on both the eyes and the mind. Whenever I have a question about the life and times of William Wines Phelps, this is where I am going to look. This book is truly a treasure, one I am pleased to have in my personal collection.