Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bruce Van Orden on William Wines Phelps and his Conversion

Ever since D&C 57, William Wines Phelps had been the "printer unto the Church" (p.203) But Van Orden points out the important contribution that W.W. Phelps, amongst them the poems and hymns that he contributed---thirty in Emma Smith's 1835 hymnbook, of which 15 are still in use in the 1985 edition (p.203).
Excluding Sidney Rigdon, W.W. Phelps was the most publicly well-known convert to the early Church. (p.204)
Phelps was involved in a host of the Church's newspapers: The Evening and the Morning Star, which he edited; and the LDS Messenger & Advocate, the Times and Seasons, and the Desert News, to which he contributed (p.204).

Van Orden acclaims his hero.
Brother Phelps was one of the most influential early exponents of LDS doctrines and practices. No one was better educated and more articulate than he in the early days of the Church. (p.204)
Among the key milestones of his contributions (which Van Orden contrasts favorably to the limited contributions of Sidney Rigdon, (p.204)), are:

  • in charge of spiritual affairs in Jackson County, 1832 (p.204)
  • service in the original stake presidency in Missouri,  1834-1838 (p.204)
  • scribe & speech/document writer for Joseph Smith Jr in Kirtland, 1835-1836 (p.204)
    • including work on the Book of Abraham
  • scribe & speech/document writer for Joseph Smith Jr in Nauvoo, 1842-1844 (p.204)
    • including work on the presidential political platform for Smith Jr
  • explorer & topographical engineer in Utah (p.204)
Phelps hailed from Puritan stock (p.204); several of his ancestors fought in the American Revolution (p.205). After spending the first years of his life in Dover, Hanover Township, Morris County, New Jersey (p.205), his family moved to Homer Township, Onondaga County (Cortland County in 1808), New York, to military tracts from the State of New York (p.205).
... the family had little contact with other people for the first few years in New York. More frequently they encountered the howl of the wolf, the growl of the bear, and the frightful scream of the great northern panther. The Phelps family erected fences around their small homes, as did all their neighbors, to keep away the dangerous predators. (p.205)
Any reconstruction of Phelps' biography has to solve the puzzle of where he earned his strong educational background.
He [i.e. W.W. Phelps, RCK] knew Greek, Latin and Hebrew and the classics. He also demonstrated considerable knowledge of world history and geography and had a working knowledge of the law. As an editor, his grammar and spelling were superb, far better than that of the average person. He was a teacher and compiler of school books for little children. W.W. Phleps was a talented surveyor, topographical engineer, and weather specialist. (p.206)
[[It is not clear to me that it puts him outside of the league of someone like Dr Frederick G. Williams, possibly in the language department mainly. RCK]]

There are two possible explanations. Either W.W. Phelps had talented tutors and/or interested neighbors; his Cortland County neighbor was a talented surveyor, for example (p.206). Or he attended the Canandaigua Academy, which his distant relative Oliver Phelps had been instrumental in developing, and which offered a boarding school (p.206).
Many young men from throughout the state came to Canandaigua and boarded at this most noteworthy educational institution in Western New York in those early frontier years. (p.206)
It is also possible that W.W. Phelps learned his printing trade and worked at a pioneering newspaper in Canandaigua between 1805 and 1815. (p.206)
By 1820, Phelps was living in Cortland, Courtland County, New York, with his wife Sally Waterman of Smyrna, New York, where he helped setup the Western Courier and bought property (p.207). He was still living there when the Morgan Affair hit the New York political scene.
In September 1826 an event took place in Western New York that changed the tone of both religious and political activity in that part of the country for many years. William Morgan, a disenchanted member of Freemasonry, was preparing an exposé of Masonry for publication. Some leading members of the fraternity ... [got Morgan incarcerated on trumped up charges, RCK] ... and then abducted him .... Morgan was never seen again, and it was widely rumored that Masons were responsible for his murder. The tawdry affair infuriated the egalitarian instincts of thousands of transplanted New Englanders in Western New York .... (p.207)
The effects on Mason Phelps were pronounced and political.
W.W. Phelps, who had become a Master Mason in Cortland, New York, was among the many who became disenchanted with the fraternity and jumped on the bandwagon of Antimasonry. (p.208)
As a result, Phelps was hired as the editor of the Anitmasonic newspaper, the Lake Light (p.208). He attended a March 1828 convention in LeRoy, New York, and was one of the leading signators of the influential document launching the Antimasonic movement. One month later, in April 1828, he became the editor of the even more influential anti-masonic paper, the Ontario Phoenix published in Canandaigua (p.208). His influence in the anti-masonic movement was such that he could expect to be elected lieutenant governor.

At this point in his life, Phelps was living in Canandaigua, a mere 12 miles away from Manchester, New York, where Joseph Smith Jr was organizing the restoration of the Church of Christ in April of 1830 (p.208). As an editor, Phelps was aware of what going on in the district (p.209). Personally, he had been a believer in the Bible---his Puritan legacy---and the duality of the Godhead---"a believer in God, and the Son of God, as two distinct characters" (p.209)---for some time already.

Phelps not only read about the Book of Mormon in the Wayne Sentinel, on March 26th 1830, but he was acquainted with Martin Harris (p.210). Phelps bought his own copy April 9th, 1830, and studied it, and decided that it was divine scripture (p.210). However, due to his role in the anti-masonic movement, he abstained from joining the Church (p.210). He did pay a visit to Smith Jr and Sidney Rigdon at Peter Whitmer Sr's house in nearby Fayette Township, Seneca County, on Christmas Eve of 1830 (p.210). While Phelps came away impressed with the Prophet and the account of the plates, he was unclear what to do, given that the New York church was getting ready to move to Ohio; Phelps still felt obligated to the anti-masonic movement (p.210).

As Phelps' attraction to Mormonism became common knowledge, his anti-masonic colleagues began to worry about losing him. While he was at Palmyra in late April of 1831, two religiously motivated Anti-masons had him jailed for debt, to prevent his joining the Mormons (p.210). It took Phelps a week to call in enough outstanding payments to settle his own debts (p.210), but by then he knew what he needed to do (p.211). He resigned the editorship of the Ontario Phoenix (p.211), and moved his family to Kirtland, Ohio, where he joined the Church. Joseph Smith Jr through revelation called him to "the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church" (p.211), and to accompany the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon to Missouri to locate the land of Zion (D&C 55).

In his capacity as a contributor to the Messenger and Advocate (September 1835), Phelps once explained his attraction to the Book of Mormon and its role in his conversion as follows:
By that book [i.e. the Book of Mormon, RCK] I learned the right way to God; by that book I found the new covenant; by that book I learned when the Lord would gather scattered Israel; by that book I saw that the Lord had set his hand the second time to gather his people, and place them in their own land; || by that book I learned that the poor Indians of America were some of the remnants of Israel; by that book I learned that the new Jerusalem, even Zion was to be built upon this continent; by that book I found a key to the holy prophets; and by that book began to unfold the mysteries of God, and I was made glad. (p.213)

Bibliographical Record

Bruce A. Van Orden, "By that Book I learned the Right Way to God:" The Conversion of William W. Phelps, in:  Larry C Porter, Milton V. Blackman Jr, Susan Easton Black (ed), Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: New York, Provo UT (BYU) 1992, pp.203-213.

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