Review of William B. Smith Biography

Dr. Kyle R. Walker[ref]Kyle Walker has a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy from Brigham Young University.[/ref] 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.

Uncle Jesse

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.

William Reinvigorated

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.[ref]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.[/ref]

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.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

15 thoughts on “Review of William B. Smith Biography

  1. It’s always been true that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. William being a case in point.

  2. Thanks for the thorough review. I don’t feel like I need to read the book now, which is good because I have a stack of them to get to.

  3. But In the Shadow is completely entertaining, if in a horrifying train wreck sense once you get to about page 200. And Dr. Walker brings depth and richness to the parts that cover material we might already think we know.

    My husband was reading to me from the portion covering William’s flight from Nauvoo. Fascinating. Beyond William is the insight you get to Joseph’s sisters, who might as well not exist at all for all we typically hear about them.

    At any rate, this is definitely a book to keep on the “must read” list.

  4. Here’s a pretty good presentation by the author given at Benchmark Books last month.

  5. Looking forward to watching the rest of this –

    Dr. Walker mentions upfront that he came to have great respect for William’s accomplishments and also came to loathe William. So I see that my original assessment that Dr. Walker was “Team William” was not, perhaps, reflective of the author’s actual feelings. On the other hand, I was very surprised at how positive all the discussion about William was for the preface and first 200 pages.

    Even when Dr. Walker starts mentioning the sexual misbehavior and related pretentions to sovereign leadership of the Church, I found that he tended to discount more than I (obviously) find to be likely.

  6. Finished watching the presentation and Q&A.

    One of the curious things for some is William Marks’ statement in 1853:

    Former Nauvoo stake president William Marks, a close friend of Emma, wrote in a July 1853 letter to the Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ that he met with the prophet a short time beforfe his death. ‘We are a ruined people,’ Marks quoted Smith; ‘this doctrine of polygamy, or Spiritual-wife System, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived . . . it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down, and its practice stopped in the Church.’ Marks said that Smith ordered him ‘to go into the high council, and I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine; and I want you to try them by the laws of the Church, and cut them off, if they will not repent, and cease the practice of this doctrine . . . I will go into the stand and preach against it with all my might, and in this way, we may rid the Church of the damnable heresy.’ But the prophet was killed shortly after this conversation, and when Marks related what Smith had said, his testimony ‘was pronounced false by the Twelve and disbelieved.'”

    From Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ, 7 July 1853, pp. 50-55, cited in Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polygamy: A History,” Chapter Seven, [Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1986], p. 77; see also, Bibliography, p. 294

    What follows is probably too long for most to read, but forms a thread that explains the curious statement by William Marks as well as Wlliam Smith’s tragic trajectory.

    So here’s the scenario:

    Joseph has been preaching that it is necessary that the Church restore the practice of allowing some men to be sealed to more than one wife. This has been required by God (per D&C 132) and is an obvious accommodation required for those men who have lost a wife to death and then remarried.

    Though Joseph has covenanted with women other than his legal wife, Emma, he has not consummated these other relationships (see the lack of documented offspring).

    In 1841-1842 there was a rash of instances of illicit intercourse, with the originator of the practice ultimately determined to be Dr. John C. Bennett. However the married William B. Smith was at the very least involved in confirming the practice and had asked Catherine Laur Fuller to be his particular spiritual wife, an instance of the “Cloistered Saint” type of spiritual wifery as described by John C. Bennett in his expose, History of the Saints.

    William is brought up on charges of adultery, likely in May 1842. In a dramatic intervention, Joseph bursts into the room and declares William innocent.

    William is instructed regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant in May 1843 and sealed to his wife, Catherine Grant, as well as Mary Covington. William then goes off to the east with George Adams, who was the first man after Joseph Smith to be sealed to his legal wife. Away from Nauvoo, George Adams and William Smith take it upon themselves to seal couples (similar to the error Hyrum made in sealing Parley P. Pratt to Mary Ann Fronst [Stearns], a former widow who had greatly loved her first husband). In addition to promising couples eternal marriage and sealing them without proper authorization, William and several of his colleagues are later alleged to have continued spiritual wifery (illicit intercourse) as a variation of “sealings.”

    William returns to Nauvoo in spring 1844, shortly before Joseph will be killed at Carthage.

    Reportedly, Joseph goes to William Marks, the Nauvoo Stake President with authority to discipline Nauvoo Mormons, and tells him the spiritual wifery business will “prove our destruction and overthrow… unless it can be put down, and its practice stopped in the Church… I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine; and I want you to try them by the laws of the Church, and cut them off, if they will not repent, and cease the practice of this doctrine . . . I will go into the stand and preach against it with all my might, and in this way, we may rid the Church of the damnable heresy.”

    This threat of cutting off those who consummate extra-legal marriages had previously been made to William Clayton, when Joseph found Clayton had engendered a child on his plural wife. It is not known whether the only other man to have engendered a child on a properly-sealed plural wife prior to May 1844 was also threatened with Church discipline.

    The timing of Joseph’s reported remarks to William Marks corresponds with William Smith’s presence in Nauvoo, and could well have been prompted if Joseph became aware through some comment of William’s that William had combined the New and Everlasting Covenant doctrines with the illicit promiscuity of Spiritual Wifery.

    William returns to the East, and his leadereship in unauthorized sealings and illicit promiscuity continues, as is well documented (with respect to the unauthorized sealingson the part of William Smith, with illicit promiscuity also being part of what those under William’s leadership engaged in).

    Wilford Woodruff visits the East and finds a bizarre mix of unauthorized sealings and promiscuity being practiced, along with ecclesiastical abuse as William excommunicates a Church leader for objecting to the promiscuity.

    Based on Wilford Woodruff’s report, William and his counselors (Brannen and Adams) are recalled to Nauvoo. Parley P. Pratt is sent to preside in William’s stead.

    Parley P. Pratt is uniquely qualified to understand the delineation between authorized sealings and wrongful behavior, as he was the husband errantly sealed to Mary Ann Frost [Stearns Pratt], a sealing Joseph revoked. As a result of that experience, Pratt knew that not even an authorized sealer (Hyrum in this case) was permitted to perform sealings without the direct permission of the one individual on earth who held the keys (Joseph Smith, Jr., at the time of the wrongful Pratt/Frost sealing). Parley was also intimately aware of the vile heresy of spiritual wifery, as it was the wife of his brother, Orson, who was most prominently linked to John C. Bennett as a female participant in illicit intercourse.

    Meanwhile, Brigham Young had given the go-ahead for men and women joined in authorized plural marriages to participate in sexual relations, as evidenced by the bumper crop of babies engendered on plural wives following the death of Joseph Smith and Brigham’s assumption of control of the Church.

    An errant William, returned to Nauvoo, is coddled because of his wife’s fatal illness. Immediately following Caroline Grant [Smith]’s burial, William is informed of his error in encouraging/performing unauthorized sealings and allowing illicit intercourse. Adding insult (in William’s mind), Parley P. Pratt publishes a letter to the Eastern Saints, clarifying the doctrine of sealing must be restricted to the proper place (the temple) and be performed by proper authority (e.g., not just anyone, even if that person is an apostle).

    William, frustrated with the way he is being kept from taking complete control of the Church, gives a sermon in September 1845 where (according to the Warsaw Signal, Vol. 2, No. 27 of 3 September 1845) he “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.”

    It is not quite a year following William’s shocking sermon (and excommunication) that Emma Hale [Smith] allegedly tells Lucy Meserve Smith [Smith] in the spring or early summer of 1846 that plural wives are not to become pregnant (or presumably engage in the behavior that leads to pregnancy) in connection with their husbands. This dating is based on the birthday of Lucy Meserve Smith [Smith]’s first child in September 1846 and Emma’s snippy comment that “it’s showing plain enough.”

  7. Wow, good thing he never went to the UK perhaps. He might have prevented all the good work done there by sleeping around with his converts!

    Of course it could also show the consequence to your life when you turn down a call from God.

  8. I find it troubling that the author admitted to loathing William Smith, and *still* felt the need to hold back on critical information that paints a negative picture of William Smith.

    However entertaining the book, that lack of candor has me thinking I’ll wait for a biography by someone willing to paint the full picture.

  9. If you are waiting for a more candid biography of William Smith, I hope you plan to live a very long time.

    Dr. Walker provides all the facts. That’s all one can reasonably expect. He can’t help it that he is amongst the majority that think spiritual wifery and plural marriage and polygamy are all synonymous terms, which blinds him to the nuances of exactly why William had to be evicted from the Church. Lacking that nuanced perspective, Dr. Barker is left with the impression that it was merely William’s anger and lack of respect for authority that caused the problem.

  10. Meg, Is it possible that Marks misunderstood the distinction between polygamy ands spiritual winery and thus misquoted Smith? Or did he know the difference and deliberately misquote Smith in his attempt to end the polygamy practice? What I think is causing confusion is the phrase, “this doctrine”–used thrice in the quote–leads readers to think that Smith is referring to the Church’s doctrine of polygamy. Spiritual wifery was never Church “doctrine.” Had Smith said “this false doctrine” while espousing polygamy as he did, the distinction would be clearer, but since he didn’t, people would conflate the two.

  11. Of course by the time William Marks is recounting this tale, it is nearly a decade after Joseph’s death. So unless we have proof that William Marks had an eidetic memory, I don’t put much store in the repeated use of the term “doctrine” as opposed to “false doctrine.”

    By the time Marks is recounting the tale, Brigham Young had gone public that the Utah Church considered the practice of polygamy an important doctrine, with Orson Pratt’s address of August 29, 1852 (Journal of Discourses, 1:58). James Strang had also embraced polygamy, which fact would likely have been known to William Marks by July 1853.

    Thus we can see Mark’s formulation of the recollection as being informed by the actions of the Brighamites and Strangites in elevating polygamy to the status of doctrine. Had Marks chosen to use the phrase “false doctrine” rather than “doctrine,” both Brighamites and Strangites could have asserted that their teachings regarding plural marriage were not that false doctrine. In 1853, there were still a large number of people who could have testified to exactly what the difference was between Joseph’s teachings and the errors of spiritual wifery.

  12. In my opinion, Meg’s analysis seems to assume an awful lot. People have different thresholds of course, but it’s a little much for me.

  13. Hi Friend,

    Feel free to enumerate those areas where you feel I am assuming.

    [That will elevate your comment from ad hominem attack to constructive criticism.]

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