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William W. Phelps: The Pen Behind the Praise

Q: William Wines Phelps is mentioned in D&C 55; 57:11-12; 58:40-41; 61: Introduction; 67: Introduction; 70:1; 85: Introduction. What was one of the most famous publications printed on his press?  What song did he write that was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple? What song did he write about the Prophet Joseph?

A: William W. Phelps was born in 1792 in New Jersey.  He was first introduced to the Church when he purchased a Book of Mormon in 1830 from Parley P. Pratt.  He “sat up all night to compare the Book of Mormon with the Bible.”  The following morning William exclaimed, “I am going to join that church; I am convinced that it is true…What a wonderful volume.”

In May 1831 William moved to Kirtland to offer his time and talents to the Church. In June 1831 the Prophet received a revelation for William (D&C 55).  He was baptized on 10 June 1831 and ordained an elder by Joseph Smith.  He then accompanied the Prophet on his journey from Kirtland to Missouri. In July 1831 Joseph received a revelation directing that William W. Phelps be established as a printer unto the church (D&C 57:11).

One of the most famous publications printed on his press was the Book of Commandments.  He also printed the first newspaper of the Church, The Evening and the Morning Star. In July 1833, as William was in the process of printing the Book of Commandments, a mob attacked his house. He offered himself as ransom to the mob if they would cease their destruction. The offer was not accepted.

William then returned to Kirtland where he helped prepare the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and the first Church hymn book.  He also served as a scribe to Joseph Smith for the writings of Abraham.  William then turned his heart to the temple and contributed five hundred dollars toward completing it.  At the temple dedication, he reported seeing heavenly personages in the upper story of the temple.  All six verses of William’s hymn, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” were sung at the dedication.

After these glorious events, William returned to Missouri and made a counselor to David Whitner  in the presidency of the church in Missouri and in that capacity he helped found the town of Far West, Missouri. He would settled in Far West. Due to some misunderstandings about financial matters pertaining to the purchase of property in Far West, William was excommunicated from the Church for a time. He soon repented of any wrong doing, and asked the Prophet for forgiveness. In a letter written to W. W. Phelps, the Prophet Joseph ended with, “Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.” The Prophet Joseph immediately forgave him and welcomed him back into the Church.

William was again appointed to publishing tasks and asked to serve as a spokesman for the Prophet on several occasions. He was with the Prophet in Carthage Jail the morning of the Martyrdom.  He wrote the song, “Praise to the Man” in honor of his beloved Prophet.

After the Martyrdom, William resolved to sustain the Twelve and migrated with the persecuted Saints to Iowa Territory and then to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. In civil affairs William was a prominent figure in Utah. He also served as an ordinance worker in the Endowment House.

William died March 6, 1872 at the age of eighty and is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Who’s Who in the Doctrine & Covenants by **Susan Easton Black

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