I suspect that if we really knew and experienced the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for ourselves, we might be surprised by who were the most influential members in shaping the developing Church. In a recent From the Desk interview, Bruce A. Van Orden discussed one candidate for that last that tends to get overlooked – William Wines Phelps. Best remembered for his contributions to the hymnals of the Church, he was also an important publisher and author of Church literature, sometimes acting as a ghostwriter for Joseph Smith. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and discussions) to the full interview.
Bruce A. Van Orden described some of W. W. Phelps’s contributions and background:
In D&C 57, W. W. Phelps was called as “printer unto the church” and to dedicate his writings to building the Kingdom of God. More than any other man up through 1845, he was the major writer of gospel themes in the church. He was also instrumental in leading the Missouri saints ecclesiastically from 1832 to 1838 and in being one of Joseph Smith’s key scribes.
Consequently, I claim that W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential Latter-day Saints in the Church’s first 15 years. …
W. Phelps penned twenty-five hymns entirely by himself. More surprisingly, he adapted in various ways another thirty-seven pieces, making sixty-two in all where his words are part of the hymn texts!
So, a few major contributions there.
One of the areas that his influence as a major writer of gospel themes that is rarely acknowledged is his efforts as a ghost writer for Joseph Smith. As Van Orden put it:
W. W. Phelps was the main force at the Nauvoo printing office beginning in January 1842 all the way through 1846 when Nauvoo was abandoned. This is in spite of the widespread belief that Joseph Smith and John Taylor were the acknowledged editors of the newspapers. But it turns out they were only nominal editors and were really engaged primarily in other activities outside the printing office.
It became obvious that Phelps was Joseph Smith’s ghostwriter for numerous articles including major long theological pieces that appeared in the Times and Seasons in 1842 and now appear as Joseph Smith’s writings in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith in 1938.
I studied carefully all the articles in digitized form from the Times and Seasons, The Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor and was able to determine the hundreds of articles that were actually authored by Phelps, even though they have often been attributed to Joseph Smith or John Taylor. …
He would really get a kick out of the fact that “The Standard of Truth” emphasis in the title for [Saints] Volume 1 and excerpts from the same quotation from “The Wentworth Letter” that will be used for subtitles for Volumes 2, 3 and 4 were from something he actually wrote.
I maintain that W. W. Phelps was the actual ghostwriter for much of the Wentworth Letter, including stunningly the following:
“Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany, Palestine, New Holland, the East Indies, and other places, the standard of truth has been erected: no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing, persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
While there should also be some influence from Orson Pratt’s An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions on the Wentworth Letter, it seems very possibly that Phelps was the primary author of the Wentworth Letter (and other documents), even though it is attributed to Joseph Smith (i.e., a Phelps was a ghostwriter).
For more on W. W. Phelps, head on over to read the full interview here.