Title: William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet
Author: Kyle R. Walker
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 639
Reviewed by Joe Steve Swick III for the Association for Mormon Letters
Counselors will often suggest to older children in bitter divorce cases to remember that each parent has unique strengths and weaknesses which may be difficult to recognize. In the matter of disputations or acrimonious separations, therefore, it may be helpful to avoid taking a particular side. Rather, children do well to seek an objectivity that avoids both unqualified negative judgments on the one hand or uncritical praise on the other. Kyle Walker seems to have followed a similar approach in his own studiously evenhanded and insightful treatment of William B. Smith, the younger brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
By anyone’s accounting, William was a firm believer in the prophetic claims of his elder brother. He was a capable missionary, organizer and writer for the Restored Church, bringing all of his zeal and energy to the cause. Dr. Walker works to present in great detail the particulars of William Smith’s history and does so without the judgmental, dismissive, moralizing overlay that can sometimes characterize LDS treatments of controversial former members.
As in treatments of other “disaffected” saints, previous LDS writers have tended to focus on the obvious and serious flaws in William Smith’s character. Walker’s biography gently admits the truth in such criticisms: the youngest Smith was at times uneven in his convictions; his language frequently bordered on irreligiosity and profanity. His general approach to life evinced a defensive belligerence; he was impetuous, and could be vindictive and punitive when he felt crossed or contradicted. A close chum of John C. Bennett, he was even by the most sympathetic of tellings a profligate womanizer. Perhaps most troubling, the youngest son of Joseph Smith Sr. was at times an unabashed self-interested religious opportunist who believed his birthright as a Smith should provide spiritual privilege.
Yet Walker’s depiction of William Smith avoids the easy one-dimensionality of previous portrayals. While he does not flinch from describing destructive aspects of William’s character, he also urges the reader to consider other oft-overlooked details in the life of the Prophet’s younger brother: he was a stalwart preacher and vigorous Church organizer who made great efforts to build up the Church using his native speaking and organizational skills; he was an indefatigable defender of both Mormonism and its founder; attempting to make sense of the revolutionary social doctrines emerging from his elder brother, especially during the Nauvoo period. He was a successful newspaperman; he contributed ideas which led to LDS church expansion; he worked as a Nauvoo city councilman; and his particularly spectacular performance as an Illinois state legislator won him the regard and goodwill of many Nauvoo Saints.
The reader is gently invited to grasp the irony of contemporary criticisms of William’s controversial sexual behaviors and marital practices by those who themselves were engaged in the revolutionary sexual and marital practices characteristic of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s confidential teaching at the time. Walker notes that William had been away from Nauvoo during 1843. This was the year Joseph Smith had outlined the Principle, especially regarding limits in administration. At the death of his brothers, William may have reasonably believed that he held sufficient authority to solemnize plural unions, and that this authority resided in the Patriarchal office. He may have justified his own antinomian sexual behaviors as a prerogative of the Patriarchal priesthood which he held by right. It is perhaps easier to criticize such a view in hindsight, but Walker provides context that at the very least makes William Smith’s post-martyrdom assertions understandable.
To his credit, he strongly resists the temptation to read back over earlier history the theological certainties of the modern Church, and to harshly judge William Smith by these later developments. Rather, the reader is provided a window into the small way in which issues such as the expanded role of the Twelve and the nature of Patriarchal authority in church governance are being grappled with.
Had Hyrum survived Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, it is unlikely that Brigham Young and the Twelve would have led the Church. Rather, Hyrum would have held that right. William’s argument was that the Keys of the Priesthood were the birthright blessing of the Smith family, and in the absence of Hyrum, it was William who held the Keys to both the sealing power, and the keys to preside over the priesthood. As Walker makes clear, the issue was whether or not William was the Patriarch TO the Church (the preferred explanation of the Twelve), or whether he was Patriarch OVER the whole Church. These issues continue to echo down to the present day, where the office of Presiding Patriarch is conspicuous for its absence since it was abolished on 4 October 1979, by making then-current Patriarch Eldred G. Smith an emeritus authority. No one was called to fill his office, even after his death in 2013.
Walker’s treatment also provides important insights into the theological and political atmosphere of the church in Nauvoo in the 1840s when compared to eastern branches. Specifically, his discussion of how Nauvoo polygamy was first learned of in the East, and how this affected local leadership and members, is fascinating. Against this backdrop, we see intentional deception by William Smith, who, like his brother Joseph, denied “spiritual wifery.” At the same time, he avoided discussions of prophetically sanctioned patriarchal marriage, even though he had already been sealed to a plural wife in May of 1843.
While his overall relationship with his brother Joseph and other siblings was amiable, to other Church leaders William’s behavior seemed ill-tempered, immature–even selfish. Consequently, he had long been at odds with the majority of the Twelve. His autocratic handling of the eastern branches during a mission in 1843 only served to increase the distance between him and the other members of his quorum. This was exacerbated by behaviors that were scandalous at the very least.
Following the death of his elder brothers, William proved to be entirely unwilling to be led about with a ring in his nose by those he considered his inferiors in the priesthood. He had received his calling by the Prophet Joseph Smith–and even more, he WAS a Smith, felt that his lineage privileged him, and that the scriptures supported this privilege. He was the heir of the Smith family, the last remaining son, and desired to step into the position of Hyrum, his elder brother. Yet the Twelve were not willing to accept William as the spiritual equal of his beloved patriarch-brother. Unlike Hyrum, William had at the very least the taint of rumors of sexual impropriety, and his unrepentant abuse of sealing authority during his oversight of the Church’s eastern missions, as well as his autocratic handling of any who crossed him, eventually led to a deep rift between William and the balance of his quorum, who found it difficult to sustain him. In the issue of pre-eminence in the Priesthood, his peers judged William a lesser man amongst greater lights, and clearly William knew it.
Eventually, William chose to part with the Twelve, primarily over Priesthood issues. His parting salvo was a scandalous public sermon promoting spiritual wifery. The gist of his remarks were later published in the Warsaw Message. According to this account, William:
“avowed that the Spiritual Wife System was taught in Nauvoo secretly — that he taught and practised it, and he was not in favor of making any secret of the matter. He said that it was a common thing amongst the leaders and he for one was not ashamed of it” (Warsaw Signal, Vol. 2, No. 27 of 3 September 1845).
Within a few weeks of this sermon, William had left Nauvoo. By mid-September of 1845, he was in St. Louis, considering his options. In October he published a sixteen-page Proclamation of his views. Here, William criticized the Twelve’s mistreatment of the Smith family, asserted that they had usurped authority, and outlined his own theological position. Consistent with his understanding of the Priesthood, he claimed publicly for the very first time his personal belief that young Joseph Smith III was the lawful heir to his father’s prophetic office, and outlined the concept of lineal succession in the priesthood.
He printed 500 copies of this Proclamation and apparently provided them to every newspaper he could think of. William’s tract arrived in Nauvoo on October 15th, and by the 29th, it had been republished as front-page news in Thomas Sharp’s hated Warsaw Signal. The effect was stunning. While Brigham Young and the Twelve had felt that William was unstable and unpredictable, they generally believed that he would eventually find himself back in the company of the Twelve, and in the main body of the Church. The accusations in his Proclamation regarding the mistreatment of the Smith family were most astounding to the Twelve, who had by their own reckoning made significant efforts to care for the Smith household – if for no other reason than it made good political sense to do so. They had provided food and lodging for the Smiths. They also provided public encouragement for the Saints to seek their Patriarchal blessings from William, thus securing him a livelihood (at the time, blessings cost $1.00 each). Moreover, William had taken plural wives at this time, with Brigham Young as officiator. There was a deep sense of betrayal, and the response was quick: on October 19th, 1845, William Smith was excommunicated.
Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the life of William Smith up to this point, but this is not the end of the story. Walker provides the fascinating details of William’s nearly 40 years of post-Nauvoo life and travels. His work here is rich and full, supplying interpretive insights that “just seem right” given the facts provided.
Not surprisingly, Smith first sought a vehicle which would both make use of his formidable talents as a proselytizer, and also recognize his unique Priesthood “rights.” He appears to have come into contact with nearly every significant contender for Restoration leadership; the roll included such notable luminaries as George J. Adams, John C. Bennett, Lyman Wight and Martin Harris.
By the spring of 1846, he had cast his lot with James J. Strang, publicly promoting him as the successor to his prophet-brother. Initially, William served as Strangite church Patriarch, Apostle and member of the First Presidency. However, within a year the revelation of William’s continued belief in and secret practice of plural marriage forced Strang’s hand, and upended an otherwise promising opportunity for Smith.
Following his parting of the ways with Strang, William launched a vigorous effort to form his own church. His prodigious labor during this period resulted in what was arguably the greatest personal success of his life. With real insight, Kyle Walker’s account provides valuable details into an area of Smith’s chronology that until now had been obscure at best. We discover that Smith was a talented and energetic preacher in his own right. In persuasive style he promoted the doctrine of lineal succession. This was a powerful concept which resonated with many Saints troubled by leadership questions, and who—for a variety of reasons theological or personal—were unable to support the succession claims of the Twelve. William also excoriated the polygamy of the Twelve, giving the impression publicly and privately that he was unalterably opposed to the practice.
His strong message drew in converts and capable leaders alike. His movement was centered in Palestine Grove, Illinois a mere stone’s throw from Amboy. This would later serve as the site of the Reorganization movement; in fact, men like W.W. Blair, Jason W. Briggs, and Zenas H. Gurley – all movers in the Reorganization– were all initially part of Smith’s church. In fact, for a brief time, membership was in the hundreds. The disintegration of William’s organization was both spectacular, and a humiliating personal failure. William’s secret belief in polygamy following public denials was discovered by Isaac Sheen, who served as the editor of the church’s official organ, *The Melchisedek and Aaronic Herald.* In light of the public position of the church on this topic, this discovery not only cost William his credibility, it also cost him his legal marriage, his children, and many members of his church. Yet William’s vigorous missionary efforts planted doctrinal seeds that in subsequent decades would flourish and bring forth fruit: W.W. Blair, Zenas H. Gurley and Jason W. Briggs would all associate with a group advocating for the principle of lineal succession, and on October 8, 1860, William’s nephew, Joseph Smith III, accepted the leadership of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, meeting in Amboy, Illinois.
Following the collapse of his church at Palestine Grove, William was to make one more brief attempt at building a new church—this time with Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, at Kirtland, Ohio. In October 1857, the two formally organized a body, which apparently limped on for several months before Smith and Harris parted ways. This was his last major attempt to head his own organization.
For William, the more successful Kirtland venture at the time was his marriage to Eliza Sanborn in November of 1857. Walker deftly describes the relationship’s stabilizing effect on Smith, who eventually settled with his bride in Elkader, Iowa in late 1860. Here, he would lay aside pretensions of prophethood for a time, attempting for nearly half a decade to eke out a hardscrabble existence as a carpenter and farmer.
In February of 1864, Smith enlisted in the Union Army, apparently in an attempt to provide some financial security for his family. Unfortunately, his year and a half of service was physically demanding, and permanently damaged his health. As a result of his service, he suffered deafness, loss of vision in his right eye, and some loss of use of his right arm. Walker speculates that Smith had also contracted a parasite, noting that this would explain why “he suffered for the rest of his life with chronic diarrhea, internal and external hemorrhoids, and piles,” and why “Smith could deal only with a limited and carefully prepared diet,” and why eating often caused him severe abdominal pain.
Additionally, Walker, notes, Smith also appears to have suffered from “trigeminal neuralgia,” “which causes such severe and unremitting pain, especially in the face, that it has been nicknamed the ‘suicide disease.’” Walker notes that similar conditions had plagued other family members, including Smith’s own father, as well as his nephew, Joseph Smith III. Such debilitating illness made farm work not only distasteful for William, but eventually also physically impossible.
Following his eighteen-year hiatus from religious activity, William was received as a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the request of his nephew, Joseph Smith III. He was accepted into that group on April 8, 1878, on the strength of his original baptism. He there held the office of High Priest, all the while fishing for high office. Walker describes just how William’s nephew was able to accomplish what Brigham Young had not: Joseph Smith III successfully maintained William’s loyalty and good behavior, while at the same time deftly keeping his uncle a distance from the office of Church Patriarch. This was no small feat for Joseph III, but as Walker notes, but there were also clear compensations of membership for William.
As presented, the prophet’s younger brother was a man of contradiction – a figure not only of amazing talent, energy and enthusiasm, but also of amazing ego, appetite and self-interest in equal measures. In the end, his significant contributions to both the LDS and RLDS traditions went largely unnoted. Walker sympathetically observes that, like a figure in Greek tragedy, the seeds of many of William Smith’s disturbing difficulties early and late were largely of his own making. He convincingly and insightfully argues that William Smith is a flawed heroic figure, mirroring many of the strengths and weaknesses of his paternal uncle, Jesse.
Smith outlived his wife Eliza by a few years. He remarried in 1889 to Rosa Surprise, about eight months after Eliza’s death. She cared for him until his own passing in 1893, at the age of 82.
The local papers eulogized William as a “’good and virtuous man,’ with an impeccable reputation since moving to [the community in Elkader, Iowa some thirty years previous], a final tribute that marked a striking contrast to William’s turbulent years in Ohio and Illinois.” It seems that added years and a stable home life left William a kinder, gentler man. Perhaps in the end, his life reflected the truth of the old Shaker hymn:
When true simplicity’s been gained
To bow and to bend we’ll be not ashamed
To turn, to turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.
The proverbial “embarrassment of riches,” *William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet* is a monumental work, capturing both the times of William Smith and the temperament of the man against a well-articulated historical backdrop. Perceptive and informative, Kyle Walker’s narrative was an absolute pleasure to read. His framing of youngest Smith brother’s personality in light of the character of his Uncle Jesse, as well as in the context of the dynamics of the Joseph Smith Sr. family is particularly insightful. This approach adds to the enviable richness of detail and insight this book provides.
The book is admittedly repetitive in places, and the index could have been more substantial, but these are very small complaints in an obvious piece of solid research. The inclusion of the two appendices – one, a list of wives and children and the other a copy of William Smith’s “The Elder’s Pocket Companion,” together with a detailed bibliography makes this an extra delight. I suspect that this comprehensive treatment will serve as the definitive biography for years to come; it will certainly be difficult to improve upon. Well worth its purchase price, this fine biography deserves a place on the shelf of every serious student of the Restoration movement.