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William Wines Phelps

Judge, Mormon, Publisher and Writer

W. W. Phelps, scribe to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and author of many of the original hymns in the first hymnal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kirtland Temple, now owned by the Community of Christ Church. In 1835, W. W. Phelps committed $500 towards its erection.

William Wines Phelps, or "W.W." as he was commonly known, was born on 17 Feb 1792 in Hanover, Morris Co., New Jersey. Mr. Phelps had a common school education, but was self-taught in many subjects. When quite young he removed to Ohio, soon returning to Homer, N. Y., where he started a paper called the Western Courier.

From there he removed to Trurnansburgh, Tompkins Co. New York, and started the publication of a paper called the Lake Light. From there he removed to Canandaigua, Ontario Co., New York, where in 1820 he published a paper in the interest of the Anti-Masons, called the Ontario Phoenix.

His wife Sally (Stella) Waterman was born on 24 Jul 1797 in Franklin, Delaware, NY. William and Sally were married on 28 Apr 1815 by Samuel Kelsey Esq. in Smyrna, Chenago, NY.

Phelps was an aspirant for the office of lieutenant governor of New York at the time he first learned of Mormonism through reading the Book of Mormon and talking with Sidney Rigdon. He bought a copy of the book from Parley P. Pratt. On April 30, 1830, "I was thrown into prison at Lyons, N.Y. by a couple of Presbyterian traders, for a small debt, for the purpose, as I was informed, of 'keeping me from joining the Mormons.' "(5)

Nonetheless, on December 24, 1830, Wlliam met Joseph Smith and was convinced he was a prophet.(3) William wrote of his experience meeting the prophet, "Now, notwithstanding my body was not baptized into this church till Thursday the 10th of June, 1831, yet my heart was there from the time I became acquainted with the book of Mormon; and my hope steadfast like an anchor, and my faith increased like the grass after a refreshing shower, when I for the first time, held a conversation with our beloved brother Joseph."(5)

In June 1831 William moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where Joseph Smith, by revelation, called him to be baptized, ordained, and assist Oliver Cowdery in the printing office, and accompany the company to Missouri. In that same month, the Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Joseph Smith gave a revelation to William Phelps.

One of the Prophet's scribes, William Phelps assisted Emma Smith in preparing the first hymnal. William wrote the "Hosanna Anthem", later named "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning," specifically for the Kirtland Temple dedication, although it was sung in Church meetings before that time. William authored twenty-nine of the ninety songs in the first 1835 edition. Hymns by William W. Phelps include:(1)

  • Gently Raise the Sacred Strain
  • Now Let Us Rejoice
  • Hosanna Anthem (The Spirit of God)
  • Praise to the Man
  • Vade Mecum

William "undertook a mission to Jackson County, Missouri, where he located as a printer, and published a monthly paper, The Evening and Morning Star, the first number of which appeared in June, 1832." After fourteen issues are published, a mob of Jackson county citizens demand that the Mormons must immediately leave the county. They present their demands to W. W. Phelps and two other local Church leaders, who ask for time to consult with their leaders in Missouri and Ohio.

The mob attacked his house, which contained the printing equipment, and pulled it partly down, seized the printing materials, destroyed many papers, and threw his family and furniture out of doors. Three days later, on July 23, the mob renewed their depredations, and William W. Phelps and others offered themselves as a ransom for the Saints, being willing to be scourged, or to die, if that would appease the anger of the mob. The mob would not accept this sacrifice, however, but continued to utter threats of violence against the whole Church.

"This persecution culminated in the Saints being driven from their homes in Jackson County, in November, 1833. Mob leaders warned Brother Phelps and others to flee for their lives, or they would be killed. Despite repeated appeals, which Elder Phelps helped to frame, to the governor of Missouri, and to the president of the United States, no protection or redress was ever given them.

"When the exiled Saints in Clay County were organized into a stake, David Whitmer was chosen president, with William W. Phelps and John Whitmer as counselors. He took a prominent part in all matters pertaining to the welfare of the Saints in Missouri.

"In the early part of 1835, he and his son Waterman were called to Kirtland, where they made their home with the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith and assisted a committee appointed to compile the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. About this time, Elder Phelps subscribed $500 [about $8,000 in 2001 dollars] toward the erection of the Kirtland Temple. When the Church purchased the Egyptian mummies and papyrus from Michael H. Chandler in 1835, William W. Phelps served as one of the scribes in the translation by Joseph Smith of the Book of Abraham.(2)"

He was implicated in the difficulty surrounding the destruction of the non-Mormon newspaper Nauvoo Expositor and was summoned with Joseph Smith to be tried for treason at Carthage, Illinois. He accompanied the pioneers to Utah, where he became one of the first regents of the University of Deseret and a representative in the Utah legislature.

On March 10, 1838, he was accused by the High Council of profiting from a Far West, Missouri, land deal and reneging on a $2,000 subscription to the building of a temple. William and John Whitmer were excommunicated by the high council and congregation. Excommunicated on December 9, 1839, he is rebaptized two days later on December 11 and returned to full fellowship in 1841. He later fulfilled a mission to the eastern states. On February 2, 1846, William follows the teachings of the Prophet and becomes a polygamist, marrying Laura Stowell and Elizabeth Dunn.

He was in the Utah legislature in 1850-57, Speaker of the House for several terms, and a justice of the peace. He became "Astronomer, astrologist, and almanac-maker" for his sect, and was the author of the forty signs of the "Deseret Alphabet.":(4)

William died on 7 Mar 1872 in Salt Lake City and was buried in Salt Lake City, UT. Sally died on 2 Jan 1874 in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, UT.

William Wines Phelps and Mary Ann Phelps Rich, a woman prominent in LDS history, are 5th cousins 2 times removed.

From The Phelps Family in America:

JUDGE WILLIAM W. PHELPS(3), b. Dover, N. J., 7 Feb., 1792, removed with his father and family to Homer, N. Y., in 1800, m. Stella Waterman (now called Sally.) Mr. Phelps had a common school education. When quite young he removed to Ohio, soon returning to Homer, N. Y., where he started a paper called the Western Courier. From there he removed to Trurnansburgh, Tompkins Co. N. Y., and started the publication of a paper called the Lake Light. From there he removed to Canandaigua, Ontario Co., N. Y., where he published a paper in the interest of the Anti-Masons, called the Ontario Phoenix.

While he resided there the Book of Mormon came before the world. He was infatuated with their new religion, abandoned his paper and removing his family to Ohio, joined the Mormon church, and went to Missouri with the first Mormon missionaries. In the fall he returned for his family, purchased a printing press in Cincinnati, and removed with his family to Independence, Jackson Co., Mich., then a new Mormon settlement.

In the fall of 1833 the Mormons were banished from Jackson Co., removing and settling in Colville Co., Mo. From here they were soon routed and removed to [Nauvoo,] Hancock Co., Ill., where they flourished for some time and built a Temple. In 1843 they were again banished.

Their next location was Salt Lake City, after which their history is generally known. Mr. Phelps removed and settled with them in Salt Lake City, where he was quite a prominent man, holding for many years the position of Judge. He died there 6 March, 1872 in his 78th year, leaving a widow, his first wife, Sally Waterman, and several children, His widow, Sally, says there are three children in Salt Lake City, the rest in the states; as to the number of wives he took and as to his children we have no full records. The following is a copy of a letter to Mr. O. S. Phelps from Mrs. Phelps on the death of her husband. This shows how deeply the people are infatuated by their religion:

Salt Lake City, 18 Mar., 1872

Dear Friend:

I received your kind letter and was glad to hear from you. I have to inform you that Mr. Phelps died the sixth day of March, and will have a part in the first resurrection of Saints and Apostles. Through all his fightings and doing he has died at a good old age.

Peace to his memory. His works will follow him. He is with Joseph and Hiram, the Blessed Martyrs, who died for the Testimony of Jesus, who believed in Revelation and Resurrection literally fulfilled. God is our Judge and our [here there are three or four words obliterated] are free Jesus and his Apostles were thought not fit to live on the Earth, and were slain for their religion, but we fear not what man can do unto us knowing that God is on our side.

Should like you to come to Salt Lake City and see and hear for yourself. Should like to hear from you often. Accept my best wishes and may Peace attend you and yours, I remain your friend and well-wisher.

Sally Phelps

(1) BYU Humanities Mormon Literature web site.

(2) Letters of W. W. Phelps, excerpts, Church Archives, microfilm copy in Family History Library (based on copy in possession of Lydia Varney Spry in 1942). Excerpts of letters were also copied in Journal History of the Church; in "Some Early Letters of William W. Phelps," Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 31 (January 1940):25-31; and in Leah Y. Phelps, "Letters of Faith from Kirtland," Improvement Era 45 (1942):529. From the The Book of Abraham Project.

(3) The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $200 by ordering through us.) By Oliver S. Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Get a free, updated index here.).

(4) Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889

(5) Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1 no. 7 (April 1835), 96.

(6) Saints Without Halos, William W. Phelps (1792–1872) November 2005