Review: William Smith: In the Shadow of the Prophet

Friday , July 03, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Doug Gibson

In “William B. Smith: In the Shadow of the Prophet” (Greg Kofford Books, 2015), author Kyle R. Walker seeks an analogy between the well-known younger brother of Joseph Smith, and their lesser-known malcontent uncle, Jesse Smith, who eventually alienated his entire family, and presumably friends, with a self-righteous anger that threatened violence at times. It’s an interesting comparison, but the sheer lack of knowledge on Jesse’s life leaves it suspect. The nephew mellowed at the end of his life; we don’t know if Jesse did but the odds are against it.

The new biography of Smith is very long, somewhat psychological, and the author frequently repeats information, but it is a magnificent work. Through extensive research, Walker has compiled a detailed biography that highlights not only the many dysfunctions that hampered Joseph’s younger brother, but spotlights his talents, and provides a poignancy, particularly in his later years, that makes you admire and root for the younger brother who was tossed from the main LDS Church a year-plus after Joseph’s death.

It’s appropriate he get a good, fair biography. Growing up in the LDS Church, I heard him described as immature, impulsive, adulterous, violent, profane, hypocritical .... He was all that, but I never heard the good, the missionary work, the defense of his slain brother, his suggestion the LDS Church expand to England, his tenure as editor and state legislator, and his later failed religious initiatives that otherwise set the framework for the now-named Community of Christ’s theological foundation. They were an aversion to polygamy and a belief in a lineal hierarchy of Smiths to head the “Reorganized LDS Church.”

Smith was a complex of emotions, alternating between damning the Utah Mormons post-excommunication, to proposals, whether to Brigham Young and Orson Hyde, that he rejoin the Utah Church, but only with a promise of a renewal of apostleship and the church patriarch position, with hints that he be as highly regarded as Young. In fact, about 1860, long after his excommunication, William B. Smith impulsively was rebaptized into the Mormon Church. Nothing came of it, and Smith, entering a more stable phase of his life that would eventually lead to membership in the Community of Christ, never affiliated with his old faith.

These contradictory emotions were liabilities to Smith’s early tenure in Mormonism. Despite his time as an apostle and other leadership positions, he was never fully trusted by his peers in the hierarchy. His key strength was his familial ties, and the patience of his elder brothers, Joseph and Hyrum, who endured his weak sensitivity, grandiosity, sense of entitlement and flaring temper, which occasionally extended to violence. Smith had a stable but needy home life, married to a chronically ill wife, Caroline, and dabbling in polygamy as it was introduced. His church troubles intensified when he went on a mission in 1843 to head the Saints in New England. He alienated local leaders, eventually drumming some out of the church, and favored manipulative associates, such as George J. Adams, who flattered him.

The most serious error Smith made was to assume, due to his family name, that he had the sealing power to conduct polygamous marriages. That action eventually had him removed from the position about the time his brothers were murdered in Carthage. For the next year and a half, a shaky, oft-broken truce would last between Young, the Quorum of the Twelve and William Smith, who returned to Nauvoo in May of 1945 with a terminally ill wife who died soon after. This was a time of tension in which most of the Smiths broke association with Young’s leadership, but William’s behavior was particularly erratic. It included a strange public speech advocating then-secret polygamy, irresponsible marriages to very young teens, sympathy for criminal thugs, and constant arguments over compensation and his status as church patriarch. As Walker notes, though, even as the turmoil continued, Smith performed with enthusiasm his blessings duties as patriarch.

Smith’s church tenure was finished after he abandoned Nauvoo and published an anti-Brigham Young bromide, ironically printed in the newspaper of Thomas Sharp, the man chiefly responsible for killing his brothers. The next several years were spent moving around the region with his new family (he married his late wife’s younger sister) and allying himself with Mormon factions. As Walker notes, he had more affiliations with disaffected Mormons than any of his colleagues, including ventures with James J. Strang, Martin Harris, Lyman Wight, George J. Adams, and even John C. Bennett! 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Smith’s several-year church that he headed, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was more successful in this venture than many perhaps realize. His church had several branches, a newspaper and several hundred members with William as the prophet. The author wryly notes that once Smith was established as prophet, he hedged away from earlier positions that Joseph Smith III eventually take over the church. Alas, the church failed when a key member, Isaac Sheen, discovered William’s polygamous past and heavily publicized it. Besides the church, William also lost his wife, Caroline’s sister Roxey Ann, who with their children left him.

William B. Smith lived a long life. The last 30-plus years of his life was spent mostly in a manner far more serene than the fiery decades of 1830 through 1859. He married a woman, Eliza Sanborn, with children and they had a few of their own. The newlyweds withdrew from Mormonism and its offshoots, and lived a rustic, semi-poor existence farming in Elkader, Iowa. Smith even briefly joined the Union Army during the Civil War to make some money. He eventually affiliated, with his wife,  with the Reorganized LDS Church, and served missions and as a branch president. His status as a brother of Joseph Smith made him an admired man, and Smith used his still-strong preaching skills to laud his brother and his faith. 

He never stopped hoping that he would achieve a major position in the Community of Christ, and frequently asked such of Joseph Smith III. The son, gifted with strong patience, compassion and interpersonal skills, never acceded to his uncle’s wish but flattered his frail ego and utilized his talents, allowing him to go on missions and speak at conferences. He outlived Eliza by a few years, and even remarried before his death at 82 in 1893.

William B. Smith, arguably a rogue as a much-younger man, was a better man late in life, a kind man who greeted Utah Mormon missionaries with tears and a hug late in his life. Walker notes that the Prophet Joseph Smith once said that William would be a good man late in his life; that proved to be true. 

There’s much I haven’t mentioned in this biography. Rest assured if you have a passion for LDS Church history, you won’t be disappointed by Walker’s biography.

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