Dr. Kyle R. Walker 1 has produced the first biography of Joseph Smith’s controversial brother, William B. Smith.
William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet was published in June 2015 by Greg Kofford Books, and offers a thorough and gentle view of the last surviving brother of Joseph Smith.
Dr. Walker seems thoroughly on Team William, focusing on William’s great efforts on behalf of the Church. However Dr. Walker is not willing to hide contemporary documents completely, and gives credence to contemporary reports from Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff regarding William’s unorthodox marital/sexual behavior. Thus Dr. Walker is ultimately unable to avoid recounting facts leading to William’s inability to retain a leading role in the Church William’s brother had founded.
In the Shadow gives us a relatively chronological treatment of the William Smith, along with important relatives and associates. Although the treatment is roughly chronological, Dr. Walker frequently returns to prior years, as the theme of a particular chapter is explored by returning to how earlier events inform the particular matter at hand.
The first chapter treats us to the pre-history for why, perhaps, William’s incredibly inappropriate behavior was so gently and carefully handled for so long. Uncle Jesse had been the capable elder brother to Joseph Smith Sr., William’s father. Jesse was able but was also controlling and abusive, willing to sue his own father and abscond with the family inheritance. However it is clear that the Smith family did not rejoice to be shut of such a troublesome relation. The loss of Jesse (entirely due to Jesse’s own bad behavior) was a serious blow that the Smiths collectively strove to avoid.
I was delighted to see how the gospel was conveyed to the extended Smith family, particularly given how they had to collude together to become converted in spite of Uncle Jesse’s strenuous efforts to save his family members from Mormonism. Any of us who have been abused for our faith will find companionship with Joseph Smith and his family as they faced abuse at the hands of Uncle Jesse.
William, the Yankee Boy
Dr. Walker treats us to a view of frontier life, as seen through William’s eyes. Given Bushman’s assertion that Lucy’s desire for a fine frame house (at the suggestion of her lady friends in town) had materially contributed to the Smiths’ later poverty, I was bemused to see Dr. Walker almost entirely avoid mention of the mortgage on the frame house. If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.
Instead we see a hardworking family who only lost favor when Joseph began testifying regarding his visions and the Book of Mormon. Meanwhile, Dr. Walker provides a delightful amount of detail regarding that period of time in the Smith family.
Sowing Wild Oats and the Passion of an Apostle
As William matures, we see that he actually doesn’t mature. He refuses to be baptized for an extended period of time, wishing to continue sowing his wild oats. Dr. Walker completely ignores the typical sexual implications of that phrase. Instead he goes on to tell us about William’s eventual decision to align himself with his brother’s Church and William’s subsequent courtship of Caroline Grant.
After Joseph Smith forms Zion’s Camp and marches in defense of the Saints in Missouri, William derides the whole thing as a failed debacle. Yet when Joseph selects men to be apostles, he chooses William above all his other brothers. This selection of William prompts concern, and we learn that Joseph specifically called William to the office of apostle to save him from damnation. Dr. Walker fails to speculate on why Joseph feared William was on the road to damnation, or how being an apostle was supposed to rectify this situation.
Instead we see an arrogant young William who can’t bear to be contradicted. At one point, William is so convinced of his own argument that he beats Joseph in public, apparently breaking Joseph’s ribs. William has described passion to be one of his faults, and Dr. Walker is pleased to convince us that the later libidinous William must have only been referring to anger and pride when he said “passion.” If William hadn’t been Joseph’s brother, it seems clear that he would have been excommunicated during the latter part of the 1830s, when five of the original apostles were excommunicated. Dr. Walker leads us to believe, however, that William’s repeated public hope that Joseph would die in captivity might have merely been in service of avoiding persecution.
William does briefly reconcile with Joseph, and even describes a vision of seeing the apostles preaching in Britain. Joseph heeds William’s vision, sending the apostles to “the isles of the sea.” But William can’t be bothered to leave his family.
Dr. Walker attributes William’s 1840 return to Church activity to the final illness and death of Joseph Smith Sr., who had continued to embrace and love William despite his violent attacks and ecclesiastical apathy. Based on my own research, it seemed clear that William’s enthusiasm may have also been stoked by newcomer John C. Bennett.
Dr. Walker almost entirely ignores William’s involvement in Bennett’s campaign of spiritual wifery (aka illicit intercourse), much less the prominent role William played in convincing women that this was a legitimate teaching circa 1842. Dr. Walker eventually mentions William’s apparent 1843 introduction to Joseph’s teachings regarding plural marriage, when William is sealed to the first of his acknowledged plural wives. A few pages later we are briefly informed of the multiple testimonies from May 1842 claiming William had advocated spiritual wifery, including at least two attempts to get women to be his “spiritual wife.” Yet Dr. Walker is pleased to cast doubt on these testimonies.
Similarly, Dr. Walker relates a second hand account from Lorenzo Snow asserting that William had been guilty of adultery, yet somehow Dr. Walker covers this account in a manner that leaves a casual reader believing that William is somehow innocent.
Instead we are treated to discussion of William’s various civic and ecclesiastical achievements, as though he were not simultaneously playing fast and loose with sexuality and marriage. Dr. Walker reports Brigham Young’s assertion that William and his counselors had married ‘scores’ of women, yet confidently informs us that Brigham Young must have been exaggerating. Eventually, however, Dr. Walker cannot avoid letting us know at least some of the details regarding why Wilford Woodruff considered William to be at the center of a “vortex of recklessness” corrupting the Eastern branches of the Church (in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts).
William Chastened (Again and Again)
Despite efforts on the part of Brigham Young and the other apostles to bring William back into faithful alignment, William persists in his belief that he has the right to lead the Church of his dead brother and officiate in sealings as well as encouraging regular members to officiate in sealings and plural marriages without permission.
Brigham and the other apostles might have been willing to overlook William’s irregular behavior in the East, but now William began to maneuver to take control of the whole Church, under the guise of assuming the office of Patriarch. Before William’s brothers, Joseph and Hyrum, were killed, Hyrum had been Church Patriarch and had stood by Joseph’s side as Associate President of the Church. As the sole surviving Smith brother, William felt that he had a right by blood to lead the Church as Patriarch and Church President. William felt that he, as apostle, was equal in authority to any of the other apostles. Specifically, William did not believe that he owed Brigham Young any sort of deference.
If William had not be so quick to irrational self-defense, it might have been possible to ease him back into cooperative support of the Church, important to many in the Church as William was the sole surviving Smith brother. Given the many others who had committed gross sins and been restored to their positions after repentance, William could have easily retained his position as apostle without it even necessarily rising to the level of obscene deference solely due to William’s status as a Smith.
However the extent of William’s irregular sealings required Parley P. Pratt to issue a public clarification that “a sealing [being married for eternity] would not stand or be recognized in the resurrection… unless performed according to the strict law of God, and of the keys of the sealing powers, in connection with the ordinances of the endowment which belongs to God’s sanctuary [temple], and no where else.” Pratt further clarified that the sealing power did not allow for “unlawful connection, or unvirtuous liberties.” Though Dr. Walker does not give full accounts, it is documented that William and others had felt free to engage in sexual liaisons with women outside of even the bounds of plural marriage, in much the same way as illicit intercourse/spiritual wifery was conducted in Nauvoo circa 1841-1842 under the leadership of Dr. John C. Bennett. 2
William attempted to refute Pratt’s public clarification in writing, declaring that neither he nor his counselors had done anything wrong. John Taylor, fellow apostle and editor of the Times and Seasons, refused to print William’s letter in the paper. Instead, Taylor printed a clarification of the scope and limits of the position of Church Patriarch. The chatty, pedantic article made it clear that a patriarch does not rule over the Church and that William, whether as patriarch or apostle (implicitly he would not be permitted to retain both positions simultaneously) was subordinate to Brigham Young.
Brigham and the other apostles had been forced to be scrupulously clear about authority to counteract numerous schismatic groups. When William forced their hand, they could not allow his claim of leadership go unchallenged.
The next hundred pages unfolds quickly, as William spirals out of control in a spectacular train wreck of unwise actions and words. Time and again he is forgiven, only to respond with hostility and paranoia. Fundamentally, William clearly never understood Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding sealing and authority. Like a much-loved dog that has become rabid, William eventually had to be formally cut off.
William After Mormonism
I have not yet completed the final 200+ pages of the book, which detail William’s life after his 1845 excommunication. However I know that William continued to careen about, leaving paranoid destruction in his wake. Dr. Walker has told the tale thus far with engaging skill, and I look forward to the remainder of this book.
Dr. Walker has done a great service in producing this record of Joseph’s errant brother. This biography is informative and will almost certainly bring any reader to an increased appreciation for the events and people that shaped the early Mormon movement.
My own view of William as sexually dissipated from his youth remains fundamentally intact. Unlike Dr. Walker, I do not think that the women were lying in May 1842 when they testified of William’s involvement in promoting illicit intercourse/spiritual wifery. To me it seems apparent that William was actively involved in promoting Dr. John C. Bennett’s aberrant sexual paradigm from no later than November 1841 and possibly earlier.
William’s endowment in May 1843 was a year later than would have been expected had William not been in a state of secret disgrace circa May 1842, when the endowment was introduced. Joseph’s desire to get William away from the potential for further corruption in Nauvoo meant that William’s indoctrination into spiritual wifery remained uncorrected and unduly colored William’s later “sealing” activities. Away from Nauvoo, William was cut off from the experiences that trained the rest of the twelve that the Church should be ruled by authority and consensus rather than by a deeply-flawed individual elevated by nepotism.
The story of William’s final months in Nauvoo as a Mormon apostle is a heart-breaking example of how much the Church is willing to forgive, the amount of love and forebearance a potential excommunicant is afforded at times before the final decision is made to formally end an individual’s relationship with the Church.
- Kyle Walker has a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy from Brigham Young University. ↩
- See my review of Volume 2 of The Persistence of Polygamy, specifically the article about Blacks and the Priesthood, which talks about how William Smith’s instruction cast doubt on a majority of black males who held the priesthood at that time. ↩