William Law was born in Northern Ireland in 1809, the youngest of five brothers, and emigrated with his family to America ~1819/20 (p.1) to Pennsylvania (p.2). However, cheap land in Ontario made William head to Churchville, 25mi north-west of Toronto, where he farmed, operated a mill and served as post master; here he also married Jane Silverthorn.
Parley P. Pratt's missionary success in Toronto made Churchville a spin-off with strong Mormonism. The Laws converted in 1836, and in 1837 Law received the Priesthood of Mechizedek, the leadership of the Churchville branch, and a visit from Joseph Smith Jr (p.2), as recorded in the diary of Joseph Horne. Ontario and Quebec were then rioting against the British Government (p.3), and so Joseph Smith Jr advised the Canadian brethren to sell and move on. William and Jane left Ontario in 1838, and waited for the settlement of the Silverthorn estate in Mercer county, Pennsylvania until about 1839. Then William Law led a seven-wagon caravan of Canadian Saints, including William's brother Wilson, to Nauvoo, where they arrived first week of November 1839 (p.3).
In 1841, Joseph Smith Jr called the committed follower, leader and financially well-situated William as a counselor into the first Presidency (p.4). Cook points out that the eventual disenchantment with the Presidency was not visible at this point in Law's career, and that the eventual reasons given, "concentration of authority" in the hands of the President and (p.4) the extension of that authority into areas of politics and economics (p.5) closely track the reasons that Marvin S. Hill had reconstructed for the Kirtland dissenters in his article, Cultural Crisis in the Mormon Kingdom, in: Church History 49 (September 1980), pp.286-297.
Cook notes that a general spirit of democratically fueled anti-authoritarianism was prevalent in that time, and that the 1830s was the height of the democratic revolution, to paraphrase Gordon S. Wood, Evangelical America and Early Mormonism, in: New York History 61 (October 1980), p.381. Furthermore, D&C 107 had restructured the Church, dispersing "presiding priesthood authority among five quorums of church government", turning the "Presidency of the High Priesthood" into the "First Presidency" (p.5). But by 1837 and 1838 (p.6), power had re-gravitated toward the Presidency. Three movements that contributed to this where the wide-spread apostasy in Ohio and Missouri 1837-1838; the incarceration of the Prophet 1838-1839; and the disappointing trip to Washington DC in 1839-1840.
This administrative metamorphosis in church government actually thrust the Mormon community towards a closed theocratic society and away from the more popular elements of democracy that were then finding expression in America. Some converts, like William Law, were uncomfortable submitting to this kind of ecclesiastical control. (p.6)While pointing to the sparsity of the record to determine Law's interests before becoming a Mormon, Cook notes that Moroni and the Golden plates were important to Law (p.6)
William Law certainly was captivated by these component parts of the latter day message. (p.7)
The importance of modern revelation and proper priesthood authority to act in God's name are notions which consistently find expression in William Law's writings. (p.7 Fn 18)And he was ready to throw in his lot with the Mormons and their difficulties:
For William Law, religious persecution resulted in a stronger commitment to Mormonism because he regarded such persecution as God's test of his worthiness. (p.7)Law was not dismayed by his family's disapproval (p.8). Rather he threw himself into his new task, together with his brother.
..., William apparently believed that diligent worldly enterprise was not inconsistent with religious salvation. With his brother, Wilson, as partner, he purchased properties, opened a store, and proceeded to build a much-needed steam mill (p.8).Law was a friend and creditor to Joseph Smith Jr, extending $100 for the Washington, DC trip (p.9), as well as to the children of Bishop Partridge during his final days (p.9 Fn 24). He regularly preached in Nauvoo and Lee County. In 1841 he joined the First Presidency as councilor, and from June through August he went on a mission to Philadelphia with Hyrum Smith (p.9). Law took a clear stand against John C. Bennett's conduct in 1842 and defended Joseph Smith Jr's character in the same context. When the authorities were hunting the Prophet from Summer to Winter of 1842 (p.10), William and Wilson lent support, as they did during his trial in Springfield, Illinois, in January of 1843.
Already in the November of 1840, William Law was able to write the following in a letter to his friend, Isaac Russell (see p.78 for the full letter) from Nauvoo:
I have carefully watched his [i.e. Joseph Smith Jr's] movements since I have been here, and I assure you I have found him honest and honourable in all our transactions which have been very considerable. I believe he is an honest upright man, and as to his follies let him who ever is guiltless throw the first stone at him. I shant do it. (p.11)But this situation did not last through the end of 1843 and the beginning of 1844, and Cook points to the disagreement of the reach of the restoration as a source of the issue.
William must have imagined that the place of a living prophet was only to restore a New Testament church, with proper authority to perform essential ordinances and promulgate Christian teachings; however, Joseph Smith's mission was to restore a dispensation of the fullness of ancient times, with plenary power to institute ancient practices and ordinances, and to speak authoritatively on all issues, including political, economic and social matters. (p.11)The result had to be estrangement.
William Law perceived Joseph Smith's religious views to be antithetical to good law and order. Not unlike that of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Thomas B. Marsh and other,s William's disaffection coincided with a spiritual departure from the essential purpose of the Kingdom. Law opposed a growing ecclesiastical control over his economic, political and social life. (p.12)In his final statement before expulsion, Law pointed to five things that had made him doubt Joseph as a prophet, all tied to these concerns (p.12):
- The Prophet claimed to be under a higher law, allowing him to obey or disobey the law of the land at his convenience (p.12).
- The Prophet united church and state, leading to a break-down of law (p.12).
- The Prophet had "allowed the established judicial order of church government to be trampled under foot" (p.12).
- The Prophet attempted to control the temporal (i.e. financial) interests of the Mormon people by ecclesiastical authority (p.12).
- The Prophet had corrupted the doctrine of the Church by introducing "false and damnable" doctrines (the plurality of Gods, a plurality of wives, unconditional sealing up unto eternal life), thus exposing him a fallen prophet (p.12).
Law had come to his position of resistance gradually. Even in May of 1844, Law wanted Mormonism, albeit without Joseph Smith Jr as its prophet (p.13). After going into the details of the illegal interpretations of the Nauvoo Charter (pp.13-15), Cook then points out that Law objected to Smith Jr manipulating politicians such as the lawyer Cyrus Walker for his purposes (p.15), whose defense of Smith Jr was bought with the promise of 90% of the Mormon vote at first (p.16), though the Mormons later decided that his opponent was more to their likening (p.16). This Law also rejected. Furthermore, Law rejected to the illegal ways he was removed from the First Presidency, where the Prophet side stepped many of the protocols put into place to guard his counselors, and did not even show up for the final session (pp.17-19). He could not even get minutes of the trial from Willard Richards, the Prophet's clerk (p.20), as none had been kept.
From the beginning, Law had wanted to profit in a mercantile way from his association with the Saints. He gathered information about the mercantile opportunities from his old friend Robert B. Thompson; he bought lots from Joseph Smith Jr in the lower parts of the city (blocks 139 and 148) for the residency and a partial block for the steam mill (block 152) (p.21 Fn 63). But they also bought farm land at the outskirts of Nauvoo, 580 acres, and a dozen full-sized building lots near the temple (P.21 Fn 63).
By 1843, the economic situation of the Prophet was dire [we do not hear about the Red Brick Store fiasco in this context, RCK], and he insisted on all newcomers buying form the Church, whose trustee in trust Joseph Smith Jr was (p.21). This made it impossible for the Law brothers to sell their holdings, and they vocally resented that in [the single edition of, RCK] the Nauvoo Expositor, 7 June 1844, Resolution 10, p.2.
The final point of contention were the new doctrines, the polytheistic one as much as the polygamistic one (p.22). It is here that Cook's exposition becomes the weakest, focusing on the "covenants of strict obedience" under which those selected to the "ancient order of the priesthood"---Law had been chosen May 4th, 1842---were placed (p.22). Even though Cook admits that the "full implications of the order were not explained all at once, and plural marriage aspects do not appear to have been discussed in the meetings of the quorum" (p.23), nevertheless Cook implies that Law was at fault for not grasping that "to receive the fullness of the ``ancient order`` was to be married eternally to one or more women" (p.22).
Initially (p.23), Stake President William Marks, Patriarch Hyrum Smith and William Law worked together to suss out the details of the polygamous going ons, but in May 1843 (p.24), with the help of Brigham Young, Hyrum accepted the revelation and joined Joseph's side, thus alienating Law. In July or August of 1843, Hyrum gave Law the revelation to read (p.24). Law was doubly embarrassed because he had ridiculed "spiritual wifery" when defending Smith Jr against Bennett's accusations (p.24). William and Jane could not reconcile themselves to the revelation. Furthermore, Joseph Smith Jr had asked to have other men's wives sealed to him for eternity (p.25); Law could only interpret this as "breaking up families".
Law and Smith Jr had reached an impasse; Law was willing to accept the eternal sealing to Jane, but Smith Jr made the acceptance of plural marriage the precondition, and refused to administer the sealing blessing until such time (p.25). In the long footnote on page 26, Cook iterates through the arguments of whether William and Jane were ever sealed, and whether Joseph sealed her to herself since William would not be able save her. The rupture was completed in January of 1844 (p.27), when Law tearfully begged Smith Jr to reject plural marriage, and the Prophet refused (p.28). On January 8th, 1844, Law was voted out of the Quorum and the First Presidency.
Cook notes that it took Law longer to let go of Mormonism altogether, briefly flirting with re-uniting with Sidney Rigdon in 1845 (p.28f Fn 91). It is not clear when he left Mormonism altogether, but in his affidavit of 1885, he stated that Mormonism "never was a Church of Chirst, but a most wicked blasphemous humbug gotten up for the purpose of making money" (pp.28f Fn 91)
Not all were happy that Law had left. In March of 1844, Hyrum Smith and Almon W. Babbitt attepted a reconciliation, but Law waned plural marriage gone, and the requestors could not oblige (p.29). On May 13th, 1844, they sent Sidney Rigdon "fully authorized to negotiate terms of peace", possibly impelled by the release of the Prospectus for the upcoming Nauvoo Expositor the Friday before (p.29). However the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor had a decidedly different effect (p.30); the people stuck to Joseph Smith Jr, who ended up dying in Carthage jail, which Law insisted he had not been involved with (p.31). Nevertheless, though Law was uninvolved, he saw in the martyrdom the retribution of a "blasphemed God" who had taken vengeance (p.31).
Cook sees Law as never quite having understood Mormonism (p.32), and putting him into a row with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer (p.32), as well as Lyman Johnson (p.33), Cook interprets the dominance of written revelation as non-Mormon.
These men were more comfortable with the then popular values of evangelical Protestantism. (p.33)Cook uses the work of Edwin Scoot Gaustad, Dissent in American Religion, Chicago (University of Chicago Press) 1973, to note an American pattern in Law's behavior:
In religious communities, self-reliant frontier life was often expressed in differences over pure doctrine, novel practices and the use of authority. Not infrequently, the western settler was intolerant of externally imposed authority, and schism would occur when doctrines or practices seemed to intricately reasoned or too far-fetched. (p.33)
Leaving Nauvoo, Law continued as a merchant in Hampton and Galena, IL, before becoming a physician and surgeon (p.33), practicing nearly 40 years near Apple River, IL (p.34), and then at Shullsburg, Wisconsin, were he was also served as one of five bank directors (p.34). Jane died in 1882, and William in 1892.
Lyndon W. Cook, William Law: Biographical Essay -- Nauvoo Diary -- Correspondence -- Interview, Orem, UT (Grandin Book Company), 1994.